The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer isn't the most glamorous mission NASA has ever launched, but it represents a giant step forward for America's re-engagement with the moon.
Last Friday, the unmanned LADEE spacecraft was launched from Wallops Island, Va., atop a Minotaur V rocket. Unlike the Apollo missions of a generation ago, the LADEE will orbit the moon for 100 days studying the exosphere -- its very thin atmosphere. It will also be searching for clues to how dust moves across the lunar surface.
One of the great unresolved questions of the Apollo missions was the source of the mysterious yellow glow on the moon's horizon reported by the astronauts conducting experiments on the surface. NASA had no explanation for the mysterious yellow glow.
For 100 days, the $280 million LADEE mission will study how moon dust interacts with light far above the lunar surface. Understanding the subtle interaction between dust, light and atmosphere of the moon's exosphere will enhance the understanding of the similarly thin atmosphere around asteroids, icy planets and Mercury.
At the end of a mission recording all it can about dust and light, the LADEE will execute a suicide crash into the moon's surface, setting up a plume of dust into the atmosphere that will be studied by the next probe. It may be true that there's nothing new under the sun, but even dust can sometimes be fascinating.