Science & Astronomy
7. September 2013

This morning at 5:27am CET, or better 11:27am EDT, there was a rocket launch to the Moon. No, NASA has not unveiled a super-secret attempt to send Astronauts back to the Moon – it’s LADEE, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer! The newest lunar probe was launched not from Cape Canaveral, but from the Mid-Adlantic Regional Spaceport at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, which was a first for a mission leaving earth orbit and allowed millions of people on the US east coast to see it. This prompted NASA to make the night launch into a real party, because even today such spectacular launches are comparatively rare.

Just about everybody was there, even the folks from CosmoQuest had two undercover agents there – both media producer Richard Drumm and CosmoQuest Academy director Matthew Francis were in Wallops, and even Universe Today writer Jason Major was able to see it from Rhode Island. Of course Universe Today has an article with many beautiful photos, which I won’t even attempt to reproduce here – let’s just say it must have been an insanely spectacular view, even if the launch reportedly happened very quickly, as is visible on the launch video from NASA’s Youtube channel. Google+ is especially buzzing with lots of articles and photos from the launch, as is Twitter – this is a time where social media really shines and citizen journalism takes over from the conventional media.

After this furious start, LADEE will take its time to reach the moon in about four weeks instead of four days like the Apollo missions did, mainly to save fuel. Once there, the bus-sized orbiter will examine the lunar exosphere with three different instruments, which was partly prompted by observations made by the Apollo astronauts, who had sometimes seen a faint glow above the Moon’s surface. There’s also an exciting new laser-based communications system on board, which will allow much higher data transmission rates. The mission timing is critical, because NASA wants to have a good look at the lunar exosphere before more human missions, like the Chinese robotic lander announced for this winter, arrive and potentially disturb the Moon’s surroundings further. After a 100-day-mission, LADEE will actually do that itself: crash into the moon and maybe provide even more science with its (big?) crash.

But the main point of this article is something entirely else. Why is everybody so excited about a rocket launch, these happen all the time, right? Well, here in Europe, rocket launches are completely alien to us, we simply do not have any space ports around here – the nearest one on this side of the world is actually in Baikonur! There is, however, actually a planned spaceport in the swedish city of Kiruna in north Lapland, where a company called Spaceport Sweden wants to launch Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo beginning in 2015. Other than that, there is nothing even remotely approaching a rocket launch to be witnessed around here – this is why I have never seen a rocket launch up close and probably never will be. But I’m not sad about it, because at least we are able to see a lot of launches via the Internet almost live and while a web transmission and the first-hand reports via social media will never be able to substitute the real thing, it’s much better than just reading about it in the news the next day!

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