NASA is making final preparations to launch a robotic probe in early September to study the moon and its atmosphere.
Scientists hope the information will help them better understand Mercury, asteroids and the moons orbiting other planets.
"The moon's tenuous atmosphere may be more common in the solar system than we thought," said John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for science. "Further understanding of the moon's atmosphere may also help us better understand our diverse solar system and its evolution."
The probe, nick named LADEE for Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, is set to blast off from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va. at 11:27 p.m. ET Sept. 6 -- two weeks from today.
LADEE will lift off on board a U.S. Air Force Minotaur V rocket, which started out as a ballistic missile but was converted into a space launch vehicle.
The robotic probe, which is about the size of a small car, will orbit the moon for an expected four to five-month mission.
About a month after launch, the spacecraft will enter a 40-day test phase. During the first 30 days of that period, LADEE will be focused on testing a high-data-rate laser communication system. If that system works as planned, similar systems are expected to be used to speed up future satellite communications.
After that test period, the probe will begin a 100-day science mission, using three instruments to collect data about the chemical makeup of the lunar atmosphere and variations in its composition. The probe also will capture and analyze lunar dust particles it finds in the atmosphere.
This mission will be the first to launch a spacecraft beyond Earth orbit from NASA's Virginia Space Coast launch facility.
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is email@example.com.
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