Science and Technology
10:15 am
Fri September 6, 2013

NASA Moon Launch Viewable From Boston Friday Night

Weather permitting, LADEE will launch from Eastern Virginia at 11:27PM on September 6. It will be viewable from Southern New England.
Credit NASA/Orbital

If going to the moon seems like something from America’s past, you might be surprised to learn that we never really stopped going.

Sure, manned missions to the moon ended in the 1970s. But in the years since, we’ve sent probes and satellites that have done everything from identify the minerals on its surface to map it’s interior structure.

And on Friday night, we’re going again.

NASA will launch a rocket from an unusual location – its Wallops Flight Facility in Eastern Virginia. So chances are you’ll be able to see the launch for yourself, right here in New England, if you know where to look.

Michael Mendillo
Credit Edgar B. Herwick III / WGBH

Boston University astronomy professor Michael Mendillo advises to find a place where there’s a good view of the southern sky and limited man-made light.

“You don't want to to be looking to the south and there's a big street light to the Citgo sign in Kenmore Square,” he said. 

Mendillo said the launch will be seen about 10 to 15 degrees above the horizon.

“You'd see a little streak of light. It won't be terribly bright but it will be as bright as some brighter stars, so a pair of binoculars would be terrific,” he said.  

Engineers at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., prepare NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) Observatory for acoustic environmental testing.
Credit NASA Ames

What you won’t see is the spacecraft at the very tip of the powerful rocket streaking through the sky: NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE). LADEE will enter the Earth's orbit and circle the planet three times, gathering speed and adjusting its trajectory until it's time to fire her thrusters and start the 200,000 mile journey to the moon. 

Once there, LADEE will circle the moon just a few miles above the surface for 90 days measuring lunar dust, which is an important part of the moon's curious, "transient atmosphere," which forms every day and escapes every day.

That tenuous atmosphere is created by three things: solar wind, sunlight (which is hot enough to boil things off the surface of the moon), and a lot of dust, kicked up by a constant barrage of micrometeors —tiny specks of material that are as small as one millionth of an inch. These tiny specks speed through the moon’s weak atmosphere and crash into its surface, knocking tiny portions of the moon loose. It's a process called sputtering.

"Since the gravity of the moon is fairly weak, the sputtered atom or molecule goes way high and comes back and hits the surface," Mendillo said.

If you are curious about why we need to know more about moon dust, Mendillo offers an answer.

“The high level answer is we want to understand our place in the physical universe,” he said. “That’s a noble adventure and a noble intellectual activity.”

And like any good scientist, Mendillo is as practical as he is profound, pointing out that everything that we put into space, from satellites to telescopes to the space station gets pelted by those same microparticles that are hitting the moon. Mendillo said it behooves all of to understand the nature of the environment in space as best we can.

Back on Earth, Mendillo and his colleagues won’t just be casual observers of the mission, they will be actively involved.

“Here at Boston University, we’re gonna take part by making some observations of the sodium atmosphere around the moon, we pioneered those kinds observations a few decades ago and so we’ll see if we can see any changes in the lunar atmosphere other than day to day changes and then correlate it with what the instruments measure on the spacecraft,” he said.

As for that spacecraft itself, LADEE is scheduled to make the ultimate sacrifice for science.

“It’s a very strange mission for NASA. It’s gonna end in 90 days. And then their gonna crash it into the surface and that’s sort of a big sputtering experiment, what happens when you crash it into the surface,” Mendillo said.

But tonight is for beginning, not ends. The launch is scheduled for 11:27 p.m., weather permitting, and the streaking rocket should be visible a little less than two minutes after lift off.

So tonight, go outside, find a dark spot, look to the south and into the skies.

And it you want to get a little closer view, the launch will be broadcast live on NASA TV. Live, pre-launch coverage starts at 9:30 pm.