The spacecraft that has been orbiting Earth since being launched early this month from Virginia is scheduled to approach this planet for one final time Tuesday morning before heading off for the moon.
The spacecraft, known as LADEE, is set to come within about 900 miles of Earth in a “final fly-by” at about 6:30 a.m. before heading off for good, according to NASA.
In Washington, the talk is of shutting things down. But the spacecraft, which was launched from Wallops Island on Sept. 6, will keep going, “since the mission is in a critical phase,” said Rachel Hoover, a spokeswoman for NASA’s Ames Research Center.
In swinging past Earth once more, the spacecraft is returning from a long distance.
Its orbits of Earth, elliptical in shape, have taken it to points in space more than 160,000 miles from the planet, according to NASA.
The Earth orbits have been performed to check out systems aboard the robotic spacecraft and to get it into proper position for coming under the grasp of lunar gravity.
This is to be the last orbit of the Earth. On this orbit, plans call for the craft to finally reach a point where it is captured by the gravity of the moon.
With its payload of scientific instruments, it is then to go into orbit around the moon, to perform missions that include making studies of lunar dust and the moon’s sparse atmosphere.
LADEE was carried aloft by a rocket on Sept. 6 in an event that left a fiery trail across the sky, visible over a wide stretch of the Eastern Seaboard.