NASA's newest robotic explorer is on its way to the moon.
An unmanned rocket blasted off from Virginia's Eastern Shore late Friday night, carrying the LADEE spacecraft.
It was a change of venue for NASA, which typically launches its moon missions from Cape Canaveral. The launch provided a light show along the East Coast for those blessed with clear skies.
NASA expected the launch to be visible, weather permitting, as far south as South Carolina, as far north as Maine and as far west as Pittsburgh.
The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, or LADEE, should reach the moon on Oct. 6. It will orbit Earth's closest neighbor for a few months, analyzing the ever-so-delicate atmosphere and lunar dust. Another puzzle: whether dust actually levitates from the lunar surface.
Unlike the quick three-day Apollo flights to the moon, the LADEE will take a full month to get there. An Air Force Minotaur rocket, built by Orbital Sciences Corp., is providing the ride from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility.
It's the first moonshot from Virginia. All but one of NASA's approximately 40 moon missions, including the manned Apollo flights of the late 1960s and early 1970s, originated from Cape Canaveral. The most recent were the twin Grail spacecraft launched two years ago. The lone exception, Clementine, a military-NASA venture, rocketed away from Southern California in 1994.
The $280 million mission will last six months and end with a suicide plunge into the moon for LADEE, which is about the size of a small car.
The results of the scientific program could be helpful in preparing for future manned missions to the moon. Although NASA currently does not have such plans, some members of Congress have called on the space agency to return to the moon rather than pursuing its current space objectives.
There is wide agreement that NASA should ultimately aim for a manned flight to Mars.
Information from the New York Times was used in this report.