Robot spacecraft ready for launch to study moon dust, NASA says

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - Weather conditions were "looking real good" for NASA's Friday night launch of a small robotic spacecraft on a mission to investigate the mysterious moon dust that Apollo astronauts encountered decades ago, a spokesman said.

The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer spacecraft, known as LADEE, is scheduled for launch at 11:27 p.m. EDT on Friday (0327 GMT Saturday) from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia.

Skies were clear and there was a 95 percent chance the weather would be acceptable for launch, NASA spokesman Keith Koehler said from Wallops Island.

"It's looking real good," Koehler said. "We're really excited and really ready to go."

Space fans in New York City can watch live coverage from the Toshiba Vision Screen in Times Square, just below the site where the famous New Year's Eve ball is dropped. The launch will also be shown on www.nasa.gov

More than 40 years after the last Apollo astronauts left the moon, LADEE will investigate one of their most bizarre discoveries.

Crews reported seeing an odd glow on the lunar horizon just before sunrise. The phenomenon, which Apollo 17 Commander Eugene Cernan sketched in a notebook, was unexpected because the airless moon lacked atmosphere for reflecting sunlight.

Scientists suspected that dust from the lunar surface was being electrically charged and somehow lofted off the ground. LADEE will orbit the moon and gather data to test the theory.

Apollo astronauts have described the dust as "like talcum powder," but strangely abrasive. It smelled "like spent gunpowder" and clung to their boots, gloves and equipment, they said.

In addition to studying the lunar dust, LADEE will probe the tenuous envelope of gases that surrounds the moon, a veneer so thin it stretches the meaning of the word "atmosphere."

Scientists refer to such environments as exospheres and hope that understanding the moon's gaseous shell will shed light on similar pockets around Mercury, asteroids and other airless bodies.

The spacecraft was designed and built at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

The $280 million mission also includes an experimental laser optical communications system that NASA hopes to incorporate into future planetary probes, including a Mars rover scheduled for launch in 2020.

The spacecraft is scheduled to drop into a low lunar orbit to begin its science mission about 60 days after launch.

Just getting to the moon will take LADEE 30 days - 10 times longer than the Apollo missions due to its relatively low-powered Minotaur 5 launcher.

The rocket is comprised of three refurbished intercontinental ballistic missile motors and two commercially provided boosters. The Minotaur 5 configuration will be flying for the first time with LADEE.

The use of decommissioned missile components drove the decision to fly from NASA's Wallops Island facility, one of only a few launch sites permitted to fly refurbished ICBMs under U.S.-Russian arms control agreements. (Reporting by Irene Klotz and Jane Sutton; editing by Jackie Frank)

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