Craft launched from Virginia now orbiting moon

CARLA CIOFFI/AFP/Getty Images - In this image released by NASA, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer observatory launches aboard the Minotaur V rocket from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Sept. 6, 2013.

NASA has largely been shut down, but not the spacecraft launched last month from Virginia. It is now flying around the moon.

“Yes,” a spokesman for Orbital Sciences said Monday by e-mail. “It is in lunar orbit.”

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The spacecraft, known as LADEE, was carried into space from the NASA facility at Wallops Island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore by a launch vehicle designed, built and operated by Orbital for the Air Force.

The Sept. 6 launch was the first to send a spacecraft to the moon from Virginia. The fiery trail of the rocket that propelled LADEE upward was visible for hundreds of miles along the Eastern Seaboard.

As the spacecraft orbited Earth in preparation for making its transition to lunar orbit, NASA issued regular updates on the mission. But with the partial shutdown of the government, those ceased.

Attempts to find the Web site devoted to the mission received this response: “Due to the lapse in federal government funding, this website is not available. We sincerely regret this inconvenience.”

However, the spacecraft, which is about the size of a small automobile, remained in operation. Just before the shutdown, it was reported that its mission was at a critical stage.

At that time, it was approaching the point at which it was to end its orbits of Earth and be placed under the pull of the moon’s gravity.

Its onboard propulsion unit was to add enough energy to start LADEE on its approach to the moon. Next, plans called for what was described as the critical maneuver that would insert it into orbit around the moon.

This do-or-die maneuver, which was to determine the success or failure of the mission, was apparently successful.

The idea now is for the spacecraft to make its passes around the moon and conduct the scientific experiments for which it was launched.

These include studies of the minuscule number of atoms and molecules that make up the lunar atmosphere. Also to be scrutinized by the spacecraft are dust particles flung up from the lunar surface.

The corporate headquarters of Orbital, which provided the launch vehicle, is in the Dulles area, adding to the mission’s Virginia associations.

 
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