Science and Technology News

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Kirtland space unit aids NASA in mission to moon

by Adam Bailey
Nucleus Staff Writer

5/1/2013 - KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- The Space Development and Test Directorate at Kirtland is helping NASA launch a spacecraft to the moon this summer.

NASA is sending the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, or LADEE, to orbit the moon and study the moon's atmosphere. LADEE will be launched into space from a rocket the SDTD helped build.

"We developed a unique five-stage rocket that could get a probe to the moon and utilize the different experiments onboard," said Col. Urban Gillespie, SDTD Launch Systems Division chief.

The rocket is built to have five stages to ensure the probe makes it to the moon and is in the right orbit to perform its mission.

"It's similar to the different clubs you use in golf," Gillespie said. "The first three stages of the rocket are like your drivers, and will be used to send the probe into orbit around the earth. The fourth stage is like your mid-iron, and is used to propel the probe toward the moon. The final stage is like a putter, and will put the probe in the exact orbit trajectory it needs to reach the moon."

The rocket, which uses three retired Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missile motors and two commercial motors, is scheduled to launch Aug. 12 from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. LADEE is the first major NASA payload to fly on an Air Force rocket from NASA's range at Wallops.

"The rocket is being processed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., and then will be transported to Wallops and assembled there before it is launched," said Master Sgt. Dave Grimes, Peacekeeper operations support manager.

Grimes said transporting 35-foot, 117,000-pound rocket motors presents unique challenges, particularly moving it along traffic-congested highways and narrow back roads in eastern states - so to gain experience, he and his team transported rocket motor mockups across the country last year. The mockups are the same size as the real rocket motors, but are weighted with cement instead of propellant.

Once LADEE is launched, its mission is expected to last 160 days. It will take 30 days for the probe to reach the moon, followed by 30 days ensuring everything on the satellite is working properly. For the next 100 days, LADEE will orbit the moon, studying the lunar atmosphere, performing various science experiments and analyzing data.

"Obviously, we want NASA to be successful, but for us, success will be getting the rocket and the probe on the precise trajectory which will be challenging, because we have only a narrow 30-minute window to launch the rocket and get it where it needs to be," Gillespie said.

Upon mission completion, the probe will gradually lower and crash into the moon while relaying data to NAS

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