Washington, April 10 : NASA is preparing to send a small spacecraft to the moon in 2011 to assess the lunar atmosphere and the nature of dust lofted above the surface.
The mission, called the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), will launch before the agency's moon exploration activities accelerate during the next decade.
LADEE will gather detailed information about conditions near the surface and environmental influences on lunar dust.
A thorough understanding of these influences will help researchers understand how future exploration may shape the lunar environment and how the environment may affect future explorers.
"LADEE represents a low-cost approach to science missions, enabling faster science return and more frequent missions," said Ames Director S. Pete Worden.
"These measurements will provide scientific insight into the lunar environment, and give our explorers a clearer understanding of what they'll be up against as they set up the first outpost and begin the process of settling the solar system," he added.
LADEE will fly to the moon as a secondary payload on the Discovery mission called Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL), which is designed to take ultra-precise gravity field measurements of the moon.
Current plans call for the GRAIL and LADEE spacecraft to launch together on a Delta II rocket and separate after they are on a lunar trajectory.
LADEE will take approximately four months to travel to the moon, then undergo a month-long checkout phase and begin 100 days of science operations.