LADEE, NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, has returned its first images from the moon. A total of five images were taken, each spaced from the last by one minute in time, and sixty miles in distance. Pictures were snapped on 8 February, while the craft took measurements of particles residing above the lunar surface. The images were acquired through the star tracker aboard LADEE. The space agency later created an animated version of the image.
The $280 million mission is managed by the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Caifornia. Exploration of lunar dust is the main goal of LADEE. Mission managers pronounce the name of the craft like "laddie," not "lady." This craft had its origins over forty years ago.
On 7 December 1972, Apollo 17 launched three astronauts to the Moon. Crew members included Gene Cernan, Ronald Evans, and geologist Harrison Schmidt. This would become the last time humans traveled to our natural satellite. When the craft entered lunar orbit, Cernan reported seeing a strange glow outside the command module, America. Other missions in the series reported similar effects.
"Was lunar dust, electrically charged by sunlight, responsible for the pre-sunrise glow above the lunar horizon observed during several Apollo missions?" asks NASA on the LADEE home page. This mission could help settle the issue after four decades of debate.
The instrument takes photos with a wide field of view, in order to locate stars. Several of these pictures are taken by the star tracker every minute, in order to orientate the craft. These are the first such images of the lunar surface ever sent back to Earth for study.
"Star tracker cameras are actually not very good at taking ordinary images. But they can sometimes provide exciting glimpses of the lunar terrain," Butler Hine, LADEE project manager, said.
In the first of the five images, Kreiger crater, 14 miles in diameter, is visible. A mountain, Mons Herodotus, adorns the second picture. Montes Agricola, a lunar mountain range, is visible in the third of the photos. Image number four features the craters Golgo, about four miles in diameter, and Zinner, three miles across. The final picture taken in the series shows the sleek basalt plains of Western Oceanus Procellarum, marked by the craters Lichtenberg A and Schiaparelli E. The images were taken above the northwest hemisphere of the visible side of the Moon.
LADEE will continue to gather data, as it orbits the Moon during a three-month mission. An experimental high-speed transmission system, being tested aboard the craft, will transmit findings back to Earth. The spacecraft will then be commanded to crash into the lunar surface, measuring dust particles as it meets its final demise.
The animated .gif image is available for viewing on the NASA Web site.