After successful launch, NASA probe heads to the moon

Lunar orbiter will test new outer space Internet and study the moon's atmosphere

After a successful lift off late Friday night, NASA's lunar orbiter is powered up, communicating and on its way to the moon.

NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) observatory lifted off at 11:27 p.m. ET atop a U.S. Air Force Minotaur V rocket, which started out as a ballistic missile but was converted into a space launch vehicle. It was the first NASA mission to launch from the Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va.

LADEE's ascent into space could be seen up and down the East Coast, even as far away as Maine.

NASA's lunar orbiter blasted off Friday night atop a U.S. Air Force Minotaur V rocket. The spacecraft now is headed to the moon. (Image: NASA)

The observatory separated from its rocket, powered up and began communicating with ground controllers soon after liftoff, according to the space agency.

It is expected to reach the moon in about 30 days and then enter lunar orbit and begin its work.

The launch wasn't without a glitch, however.

NASA reported that during technical checkouts soon after the launch, the spacecraft commanded itself to shut down its reaction wheels, which are used to position and stabilize the spacecraft. Engineers are working on the problem and feel they have plenty of time to get the reaction wheels working again before LADEE enters lunar orbit.

A normal spacecraft checkout takes a couple of days, and this anomaly may add a couple more days to the process, NASA said.

"The LADEE spacecraft is working as it was designed to under these conditions. There's no indication of anything wrong with the reaction wheels or spacecraft," said S. Pete Worden, Ames center director, in a written statement. "The LADEE spacecraft is communicating and is very robust. The mission team has ample time to resolve this issue before the spacecraft reaches lunar orbit. We don't have to do anything in a rush."

He added that this is not an unusual event for a spacecraft.

The orbiting observatory is expected to study the moon's atmosphere, giving scientists information that should help them better understand Mercury, asteroids and the moons orbiting other planets. However, that's not the spacecraft's only mission.

About a month after launch, it is scheduled to begin a limited test of a high-data-rate laser communication system. If that system works as planned, similar systems are expected to be used to speed up future satellite communications, as well as deep space communications with robots and human exploration crews.

This will be the space agency's first test of laser communications, though in 2017, NASA is expected to launch a Laser Communications Relay Demonstration, which is expected to run tests for two to five years.

Using a laser for communications, instead of radio systems, would enable robots -- similar to the Mars rover Curiosity -- as well as astronauts to send and receive far greater data loads, whether they're in orbit around Earth, on the moon or on a distant asteroid.

The two-way laser communications system can deliver six times more data with 25% less power than the best radio systems.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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