NASA's Moon probe settles into lunar orbit

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NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) orbits the moon in this artist's concept. (NASA) NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) orbits the moon in this artist's concept. (NASA)
SummaryLatest Moon mission is designed to gain a better picture of the structure.

NASA's new small car-sized robotic lunar probe is now officially orbiting the Moon, in a quest to seek answers about the atmosphere of the Earth's natural satellite.

After a month-long journey in space, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft performed an engine burn last week that took it into orbit around the Moon.

The latest Moon mission is designed to gain a better picture of the structure and composition of Moon's thin atmosphere, NASA said.

LADEE made three elliptical orbits around the Earth, moving into a higher orbit on each pass around the planet, before settling in lunar orbit.

Once its orbit was high enough, the Moon's gravity took over and LADEE performed its big burn to transfer to lunar orbit, mission managers said.

LADEE now needs to perform two more lunar orbit insertion manoeuvres before the probe's approximately month-long checkout phase can begin, SPACE.com reported.

The September 6 launch was the first beyond Earth orbit from the NASA's Virginia Space Coast launch facility.

LADEE will orbit the Moon to gather detailed information about lunar atmosphere and determine whether dust is being lofted into the lunar sky, NASA said.

A thorough understanding of these characteristics of our nearest celestial neighbour will help researchers understand other bodies in the solar system, such as large asteroids, Mercury, and the Moons of outer planets, the agency said.

"The Moon's tenuous atmosphere may be more common in the solar system than we thought," John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for science in Washington said before the launch last month.

"Further understanding of the Moon's atmosphere may also help us better understand our diverse solar system and its evolution," said Grunsfeld.

The mission has many firsts, including the first flight of the Minotaur V rocket, testing of a high-data-rate laser communication system, besides first launch beyond Earth orbit from the agency's Virginia Space Coast launch facility.

LADEE was built using a general purpose spacecraft design that allows NASA to develop, assemble and test multiple modules at the same time.

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