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Spacecraft launched from Wallops orbits Earth in preparation for moon mission

The spacecraft that was launched Friday night from Virginia is now thousands and thousands of miles away, NASA said Monday night. It is orbiting the Earth, in preparation for its mission of orbiting the moon.

The robotic craft was sent on its mission of scientific exploration at 11:27 p.m. Friday from the space flight facility at Wallops Island. It was lifted by a rocket that left a trail of fire across the night sky, to be seen all over the East Coast.

Known as LADEE, for Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, the spacecraft is now in an elliptical orbit around the Earth, about 160,000 miles up, NASA said.

It is going through the systems checkout phase, said Butler Hine, NASA’s LADEE project manager. The LADEE mission is run by NASA’s Ames Research Center in California.

“Everything looks good so far,” Hine said by e-mail.

At 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, the spacecraft will reach the farthest point from Earth on its current orbit. On Friday at 12:38 p.m., it will make its closest approach, Hine said.

At that point, it will fire its on-board propulsion system to lift itself into another elliptical orbit. According to plans, it will orbit the Earth three times, then be captured by lunar gravity and eventually make its way into an orbit around the moon.

The science missions to be performed there include studies of lunar dust, of conditions near the lunar surface and of the moon’s atmosphere.

The moon does have an atmosphere, although it is far thinner than the Earth’s, NASA said. It is of interest in space exploration, NASA said, because similar atmospheres might be found elsewhere in the solar system. LADEE will determine its composition by using a spectrometer to analyze visible and ultraviolet light waves generated by its atoms.

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