By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
When NASA’s latest lunar mission lifts off today from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, University of Hawaii at Hilo sophomore Krystal Schlechter and her mentor, Physics and Astronomy Department Instructor John Hamilton, will have front-row seats for the spectacle.
Over the summer, Schlechter worked as an intern through the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems (PISCES), collecting data related to NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer mission, known as LADEE (pronounced “laddie”) for short. Using two 11-inch telescopes outfitted with sensitive, high speed video cameras, she and Hamilton recorded the impact and frequency of meteor strikes on the moon.
Scientists believe that meteors contribute to the high incidence of dust in the atmosphere on the moon, and their data, paired with results from the LADEE mission, may help to answer some of their questions surrounding meteor impacts on the atmosphere of the moon.
In a phone interview Thursday afternoon, Hamilton, who also serves as the PISCES program’s test logistics and education and public outreach manager, said he was excited to share the momentous occasion with his student.
“It’s a really personal thing for me,” he said. “When I was in high school, I won a NASA contest … and got to watch a Skylab launch in 1972. Watching that launch put my career into astronomy and space. It was huge. … When this thing came up, working with the lunar missions, I knew if anybody, Krystal needs to go see this. This was what a lot of her work had been leaning towards.”
Hamilton organized an online crowd-funding campaign to raise the money to send Schlechter to the launch, and many various donors chipped in, he said.
“It just sort of snowballed,” he said. “Hopefully, it will be one of these things that inspires her to keep going. She’s getting to meet people from all different aspects, including NASA Ames (Research Center), Goddard (Space Flight Center), Marshall Space Flight Center. It’s all converged here in little bits and pieces. She gets to be a part of that team.”
Schlecter, a native of Portland, Ore., said Thursday she was thrilled with the opportunity to make contacts with such accomplished scientists.
“I’m just looking forward to getting to know the people that put this whole mission together,” she said. “The people that work at the MEO (Meteoroid Environment Office), learning how they do the lunar monitoring impact program, how they deal with the little problems that come up. It’s exciting.”
And then, of course, there’s the rocket launch, which is something she’s also never seen before.
“That will be exciting to watch,” she said with a laugh.
Schlecter added that the mission will conclude with the satellite intentionally crashing into the surface of the moon, thereby creating a large plume which can be studied by astronomers and hobbiests around the world. When asked if she was sad that the mission would end in such a way after so much work, she was unequivocal.
“No! That’s the whole point!” she said. “It’s exciting. We’re trying to get it to crash where it’ll be on a portion of the moon where as many people around the world as possible can see it, so we can get more data.”
Schlechter serves as president of the University Astrophysics Club and plans to graduate by 2015. She said she’s still not entirely sure where her education or possible career path will take her, but astronomy will remain a fascination for her, she said.
“I’m still young. I just want to keep my options open,” she said.
Lift-off is scheduled for 5:27 p.m. Hawaii time today. The launch will be broadcast live on NASA TV, which can be viewed online at nasa.gov/ntv. Coverage will begin at 3:30 p.m. NASA TV can also be viewed in HD online via ustream at www.nasa.gov/multimedia/nasatv/ustream.html.
LADEE will be the first spacecraft to be launched into outer space from Wallops. And it will be the first moonshot ever from Virginia in 54 years of lunar missions.
The unmanned Minotaur rocket consists of converted intercontinental ballistic missile motors. A peace treaty between the United States and Russia specifies the acceptable launch sites for those missile parts; Wallops is on that short list.
All but one of NASA’s approximately 40 moon missions — most memorably the manned Apollo flights of the late 1960s and early 1970s — originated from Cape Canaveral. The most recent were the twin Grail spacecraft launched two years ago this weekend. The lone exception, Clementine, a military-NASA venture, rocketed away from Southern California in 1994.
Scientists involved in the $280 million, moon-orbiting mission want to examine the lunar atmosphere — yes, that’s right, the moon’s atmosphere.
“Sometimes, people are a little taken aback when we start talking about the lunar atmosphere because, right, we were told in school that the moon doesn’t have an atmosphere,” said Sarah Noble, NASA program scientist.
“It does. It’s just really, really thin.”
The atmosphere is so thin and delicate, in fact, that spacecraft landings can disturb it. So now is the time to go, Noble said, before other countries and even private companies start bombarding the moon and fouling up the atmosphere.
Just last week, China announced plans to launch a lunar lander by year’s end.
There’s evidence Mercury also has a tenuous atmosphere, where, like our moon, the atmospheric molecules are so sparse that they never collide. Some moons of other planets also fall into that category, as do some big asteroids.
Earth’s moon is relatively close, and by studying its atmosphere, scientists will learn about similar atmospheres in places farther afield, Noble said.
Scientists also are eager to measure the lunar dust and see whether the abrasive, equipment-clogging particles actually levitate right off the surface. None of the previous moon missions focused exclusively on the atmosphere and dust.
It will take LADEE — the size of a small car coming in under 1,000 pounds — one month to get close enough to the moon to go into lunar orbit, followed by another month to check its three scientific instruments. Then the spacecraft will be maneuvered from 30 miles to 90 miles above the lunar surface, where it will collect data for just over three months.
The mission will last six months and end with a suicide plunge into the moon.
NASA is inviting amateur astronomers to keep an eye out for any meteoric impacts on the moon once LADEE arrives there on Oct. 6. Such information will help scientists understand the effect of impacts on the lunar atmosphere and dust environment.
Hitching a ride on LADEE is an experimental laser communication system designed to handle higher data rates than currently available. NASA hopes to eventually replace its traditional radio systems with laser communications, which uses less power and requires smaller transmitters and receivers, while providing lightning-fast bandwidth.
NASA was hot on the lunar trail when it announced the LADEE mission in 2008. But the effort to return astronauts to the moon was canceled by President Barack Obama in 2010.
The latest target destinations for human explorers: an asteroid, then Mars. The debate continues as to whether the moon is a more practical starting point.
The Air Force Minotaur V rocket was built by Orbital Sciences Corp. The Virginia-based company is scheduled to make its first-ever supply run to the International Space Station in just two weeks, using its own Antares rocket. Wallops will host that launch as well.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
Email Colin M. Stewart at firstname.lastname@example.org.