(LATE ADDITION: Launch a success on the first night and the first minute of the first launch window. One thinks NASA's and Orbital's controllers got tired saying one thing over and over again: Nominal, nominal, nominal, and nominal again. Also a few expansions on the theme, such as "orbital parameters are within requirements." How expressive. Five stages and all fired right on cue. Then it spat the spacecraft out and into its looping convoluted path toward rendezvous with our Moon, now a waxing crescent. "God speed on your journey," one control room voice intoned. Congrats are in order. One other thing. That Minotaur V shot off the pad like, um, a skyrocket. Blink and it was a dot in the sky. Say what you will about the Cold War, it inspired some effective hardware. Now, we backtrack to original post…)
The public is getting a decent trickle of news alerts today as NASA prepares an odd and fascinating moon probe for launch tonight (Friday) at about 11:30 pm from Wallops Island off Virginia. That place is well known for sending sub-orbital high atmosphere instruments and stuff like that up, but not fully-grown-up satellites much less missions to Luna. If space were a sporting game, Wallops has been strictly minor league. Until now.
The mission is spelled LADEE but called 'laddy', for Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer. It will spend about three months skimming around the moon at very close range – just a few tens of kilometers up – before ending it all with a deliberate dive to doom into the grey lunar surface. Cost is around $280 million.
I'll get to the news coverage in a moment.
First, however, allow a little riff on why this mission is an odd duck. It probably arouses interest from experts and oldtimers inside the space science and rocketship community to an outsized extent when one considers its modest scope. Plus to ponder is the etymology of the launcher's name: Minotaur V. Little or none of this tangential stuff will likely get much space in spot news. I thus step into the breach.
While it has several instruments on board, and will test lasers as high bandwidth communication mediums in space, the primary goal declared in press material is to answer an obscure riddle dating back to Apollo. Astronauts noticed that toward sunrise or sunset the horizon has a glow. The faint luminosity even has extended structures that the men from Apollo called streamers. With next to no atmosphere, so much back-scattered light from the moon's limb is hard to figure. One hypothesis was and is that the action of sunlight somehow or other separates electric charges on the surface in a way that shoots teeny dust particles into the lunar sky. Another hypothesis blames a sulfur flourescence in a hyper-thin atmosphere. Which could it be? Both, neither..?? That's a head scratcher for sure. But one wonders whether the answer will be much more than a shaggy dog story: one that explains a specific little puzzle but doesn't connect much to larger issues. The press kit does say that such "exosphere" behavior might well offer generalized explanations of physics around other near-airless worlds, and that the time for the mission is now: some entrepreneurs are planning commercial passenger flights or other moon stunts that would raise a lot of dust and wreck what is now a pristine exosphere for study. And, anything new on moon dust could be important when and if people try to visit there a lot and get their gear covered in the stuff, it turns out to be dangerous. Still. Will any reporters ask NASA and mission scientists, bluntly, whether it is worth $280 million dollars to chase this will-o'-the-wisp?
Second, if you're an old rocket engineer it has to be astounding to see little Wallops Island, despite its rich history in atmospheric and other sounding rocket science, home to a genuine space mission to another world, even if it's just our moon. Veterans in the business might have good remarks to make on that. Certainly some commercial interests and local government agencies want people to think so. See: 'Welcome to the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority and Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport'. LADEE may be its first big show. The state's governor, Bob McDonnell, is particularly keen, see this press release, on turning Wallops into a spaceport.
And third, there is the launcher. Minotaur V. It's built for the Air Force by Orbital Sciences Corp., headquartered in Virginia. The Air Force gave or sold or some how transferred it to NASA. But Orbital made it and the Wallops facility launched it. So that gives the commonwealth two presences on this mission. But it's the rocket's name that interests me. It is the latest in a series of Minotaur launchers Orbital has, on USAF contract, cobbled up from de-militarized ICBM rockets. A Minotaur V's lower stages are from Peacekeeper ICBMs, which were known as MX missiles back in the cold war when their development was a big story. But here's the etymological twist. The very first Minotaurs used the bottom parts from another, older solid-fueled and silo-based missile, the Minuteman. And, the upper parts of all the Minotaurs have come from Orbital's parts shelf, chiefly from its Pegasus family of rockets (some of which are air-launched from, I think, a modified old DC-10 jetliner). In that family is one launcher called Taurus.
Get it? In myth, the Minotaur was (before Ephesius slew the monster) a creature with the body of a man, sort of, and the head of a bull. And Taurus means bull. So there you go, Add a MINuteman to a Taurus and you get a double wordplay, Minotaur. Or is this parsing of space age nomenclature, stitchery of rocket parts, and old stories that amused the Greeks just my imagination? An email has been dispatched to the Orbital p.r. department asking why this family of rockets got named Minotaur in the first place. As of late today, no answer.
This launch brushes other larger questions and events. For instance, while the Space X corporation that entrepreneurial wunderman Elon Musk runs gets most of the publicity these days in the rocketeering game, Orbital got there first. It lives on gov't contract, sure, but its big success has come from the air-launch booster concept it developed on its own into a commercial success. (for a small story offering another angle on the competition between the two companies, at Space News Dan Leone has an item on the sparring over who will be ready first to take a prime role in sending supplies to the International Space Station). The old space race was a real race, between two superpowers. Today's private space competition is more of a melee, driven in all directions by competitive enterprise.
At about the time I finish this post, NASA's countdown is to send the Minotaur V up. If visibility is good, people along or near much of the Mid-Atlantic coast will see it go. Some coverage thus far has been on the general facts of the mission, some focussed more on sightseeing tips. None has dived deep into the red-hot issues riffled through in this post's top. If the thing crashes or otherwise fails, I'll put a new top on this post: 'Oh, never mind.'
- AP -Marcia Dunn: NASA launching robotic explorer to moon from Va.
- BBC – Jonathan Amos: Nasa's LADEE Moon probe ready for lift-off ; Amos makes great effort to report that such thin envelopes as the moon has are so common on other moon and such, it is natural to look hard at the nearest example. Not explained here is how studying bits of the dust way up in the lunar sky will be crucial for learning whether it is hazardous to live or hard to keep machines operating on the surface. After all, the old NASA moon buggy ran okay.
- Christian Science Monitor – Liz Fuller-Wright: Moon mission to look for 'hopping' water and 'electrified' dust ;
- Popular Mechanics – Alyson Sheppard: 3 Reasons Why NASA's New Moon Mission Matters ;
- Popular Mechanics – Joe Pappalardo: Wallops Island: The Little Spaceport That Could ; A good and colorful backgrounder chasing one of the angles I went into this post while assuming it would not get coverage. Hurray.
- National Geographic: Watch NASA's Moon Launch Tonight From the East Coast ;
- San Francisco Chronicle – David Perlman: NASA to study moon dust on lunar surface ; This is a local story for Perlman, as the LADEE space probe comes from designers and managers at the NASA Ames Research Center between San Francisco and San Jose. Ditto for the next story down.
- San Jose Mercury News – Lisa M. Krieger: NASA Ames readies spacecraft to study moon's atmosphere ;
- Spaceflight Now – Stephen Clark: New Minotaur 5 rocket tailored for moon mission ; Pretty good glimpse of how Orbital puts these launchers together. Alas, no word here on why the name 'Minotaur'.
- Forex TV (NY) Lisa Judd: A shorty notable for declaring that LADEE "is expected to land around October 6." Right, and land so hard it'll leave a crater and a very large cloud of non-electrically-levitated dust spraying all over the place, the shattered innards of LADEE included in the mess.
- …could go on,but don't want to miss the launch