Washington: NASA is making final preparations to launch a small car-sized robotic Moon probe next month in an attempt to answer prevailing questions about the lunar atmosphere.
The US space agency is gearing up for the mission designed to gain a better picture of the structure and composition of Moon's thin atmosphere.
The September 6 launch will be the first beyond Earth orbit from the NASA's Virginia Space Coast launch facility.
The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) will orbit the Moon to gather detailed information about lunar atmosphere and determine whether dust is being lofted into the lunar sky, NASA said.
A thorough understanding of these characteristics of our nearest celestial neighbour will help researchers understand other bodies in the solar system, such as large asteroids, Mercury, and the Moons of outer planets, the agency said.
"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 in Washington.
"Further understanding of the Moon's atmosphere may also help us better understand our diverse solar system and its evolution," said Grunsfeld.
The mission has many firsts, including the first flight of the Minotaur V rocket, testing of a high-data-rate laser communication system, and the first launch beyond Earth orbit from the agency's Virginia Space Coast launch facility.
The probe will launch on a US Air Force Minotaur V rocket, an excess ballistic missile converted into a space launch vehicle.
LADEE was built using a general purpose spacecraft design that allows NASA to develop, assemble and test multiple modules at the same time.
The bus structure is made of a lightweight carbon composite with a mass of 547.2 pounds - 844.4 pounds when fully fuelled.
"This same common bus can be used on future missions to explore other destinations, including voyages to orbit and land on the moon, low-Earth orbit, and near-Earth objects," said Ames Director S Pete Worden.
Butler Hine, LADEE project manager at Ames, said the innovative common bus concept brings NASA a step closer to multi-use designs and assembly line production and away from custom design.
"The LADEE mission demonstrates how it is possible to build a first class spacecraft at a reduced cost while using a more efficient manufacturing and assembly process," Hine said.
Approximately one month after launch, LADEE will begin its 40-day commissioning phase, the first 30 days of which the spacecraft will be performing activities high above the Moon's surface.
These activities include testing a high-data-rate laser communication system that will enable higher rates of satellite communications similar in capability to high-speed fibre optic networks on Earth.