For NASA's Moon Probe, Physics Trumps Shutdown

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When it came time for NASA’s LADEE spacecraft to put itself in orbit around the moon, the politics that put the U.S. government into a partial shutdown took a back seat to the physics of spaceflight.

The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, nicknamed LADEE, blasted off aboard a Minotaur 5 rocket from Wallops Island, Virginia, on Sept. 6, the first leg of a roundabout, month-long journey to the moon.

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After circling Earth three times, the spacecraft on Sunday was finally in position for a make-or-break engine firing to slow its speed so that it could be captured by the moon’s gravity.

The maneuver could not be rescheduled for when furloughed government workers were back on the job.

“Thanks to NASA’s foresight and good project management within the LADEE team, essential personnel were immediately exempted from the shutdown and operations have continued normally,” deputy project scientist Greg Delory, with NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., wrote in an email to Discovery News.

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LADEE successful fired its braking rocket for about four minutes. Delory says the maneuver went so well that a planned follow-on motor burn to tweak the orbit is not necessary.

“The spacecraft team continues to keep a close eye on LADEE’s systems to ensure that we’re in a good position to close in on our final science orbit as the mission progresses,” Delory wrote.

Scientists want to position LADEE into a near-circular, 155-mile high orbit to probe the tenuous envelope of gases that surrounds the moon and look for electrically charged dust rising from the lunar surface.

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Before LADEE begins its science mission however, the spacecraft will test a prototype laser communications system NASA is developing for future missions, including a Mars rover scheduled to launch in 2020.

“There have as yet been no impacts on the commissioning phase due to the partial government shutdown (and this includes the laser communications demo),” Delory wrote.

Image: Artist’s impression of the LADEE spacecraft orbiting above the lunar surface. Credit: NASA

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