The next chapter in our study of the Moon begins tomorrow with the launch of LADEE, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer. Once entering lunar orbit, the mission will work to better characterize the tenuous atmosphere which hugs the Moon.
Full disclosure: My employer, the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado is one of the principal institutions involved in the LADEE mission.
In the years to come, we will (hopefully!) be sending an increasing number of missions, both manned and unmanned, to the Moon. And, hopefully, these missions will be increasingly complex and ambitious. A lunar base, perhaps? Just like how the Industrial Revolution changed the Earth's atmosphere, human activities will affect the Moon's. LADEE is designed to measure and study the lunar environment before substantial human activity can disrupt it.
But the mission will do more for human spaceflight than simply establish a baseline for the our alteration of another world. By measuring the size and distribution of dust and small particles in the lunar atmosphere, LADEE will help guide the engineering standards necessary for developing the first generation of permanent lunar facilities, from telescopes to human habitation.
The spacecraft will also help pioneer the next generation of space communication: laser-based communication. I wrote earlier this year about how such a system works, and LADEE will be the first spacecraft equipped to communicate this way on a regular basis. In the future, this may enable a broadband-like connection to the Internet for people working on the Moon.
This is only the tip of the iceberg for what LADEE hopes to accomplish in her 100-day mission. It all starts tomorrow with a launch at 11:27 PM EDT from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. I'll post tomorrow a link to watch it live on NASA TV.