Long after tonight’s high school football games end, step outside, talk to your neighbors and see NASA’s LADEE mission rocket just after it launches from Wallops Island, Va., on the Eastern Shore. This moonshot, sans astronauts, blasts off sometime in a four-minute launch window that starts at 11:27 p.m. Look to the south-southeast, as many people in the greater Washington area should be able to see it with a good view of the horizon.
For Washington and for Wallops Island, the weather is expected to be clear.
LADEE – or the Lunar Atmosphere Dust Environment Explorer – will orbit Earth then cruise to the moon, where it will gather data on the lunar atmosphere and to see whether dust is lofted into moon’s sky.
This style rocket – the five-stage Minotaur V – has been in the news before, as you may recall it as a Peacekeeper missile. In its current civilian configuration, by Orbital Sciences Corp., this mission will become the first to launch beyond Earth from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.
Find a good view of the south-southeastern horizon so you can see above buildings and trees. Apartment balconies, higher ground and parking decks should suffice. Just after launch, the rocket will speed into orbit around the Earth. For the Washington area, NASA says, expect to see the initial stages about 13 degrees above the horizon.
NASA and Orbital have developed a chart that plots the elevation visibility of East Coast locations for the rocket moving into orbit.
Washington and Baltimore should start seeing the rocket at about 40 seconds after launch. This NASA and Orbital chart plots the “first sighting” for East Coast locations.
The initial flight path of LADEE will be over the Atlantic Ocean, where it will drop its first three stages. You might notice that its trajectory arches and it will appear to drop back toward Earth. Don’t worry. You’ll be experiencing an optical illusion, as the rocket follows the natural roundness of our own planet’s curvature.
From Washington, you will first spot the rocket in the south-southeast and it will move toward the east. Imagine standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and facing southeast. That puts the Washington Monument on your left. In this graphic, produced at Orbital by Carlos Niederstrasser, you can find your orientation. (Please note: For clarity purposes, the graphic is in daylight. The launch will be in the dark of night.)
This YouTube video from SpaceVidsNet provides an animated explanation of the launch and what happens during the mission’s initial stages.
The speeding rocket – barring any clouds – should be visible from eastern North Carolina, Richmond, Va., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Hartford, Conn., and Boston. It will be harder to see from eastern West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Binghamton, N.Y., Syracuse, N.Y., Montpelier, Vt., Bangor, Maine and Presque Isle, Maine.
But what if your neighbor’s huge tree blocks your view or you have to work late? Thanks to social media and the connected world, you have options:
– Tonight, 9:30 p.m.: Live internet coverage begins on NASA TV.
– Tonight, 9:30 – 11:35 p.m.: Pre-launch webcast featuring NASA experts discussing the mission on NASA EDGE.
– Tonight, 10:30 p.m. – 1 a.m.:Live from New York City’s Times Square, watch from the Toshiba Vision screen, just underneath the famous New Year’s Eve ball.
– Virginia’s Eastern Shore: NASA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and local officials have organized viewing areas at Robert Reed Park, Main Street, Chincoteague, Va., or Beach Road, Chincoteague. Large televisions will show the launch. More information here.
– Saturday, 1 a.m. (approx.): Post-launch news conference on NASA TV.
– Tweeters will be tweeting on Twitter all day. Join the conversation: #NASALADEE
Overview of the LADEE mission, from NASA:
The official NASA LADEE Web site.