NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer will orbit the Moon to gather information on its atmosphere and surface conditions. It launches from Wallops Island, Va. tonight at 11:27 p.m. ET. (Credit: NASA)
If the typical bevy of Friday night activities seem just too boring to bear, try out a rocket launch instead.
At roughly 11:27 p.m. ET tonight, NASA will launch its Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) onboard an Orbital-made Minotaur V rocket. The launch is the first to take place at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va., and will be visible to a wide array of East Coast onlookers lucky enough to catch a patch of clear sky with enough visibility.
The goal of the $280 million mission, pronounced "laddie," is to investigate age-old unknowns surrounding the moon's atmosphere first poised by NASA's Surveyor 7 mission in 1968. Back then, astronauts caught sight of unexplainable "streamers" of light on the horizon of Earth's natural satellite before sunrise.
Scientists posit that the nature of the mysterious moon dust is tied to the moon's atmosphere and its interactions with the surface environment, but have been unable to study it thoroughly in the nearly 50 years since.
The moon's boundary surface exosphere, as it's called, has been left relatively undisturbed thanks to a low number of probe landings of late. That portion of atmosphere -- which the Earth has, but out of reach beyond the orbit of the International Space Station -- also happens to be the most common type of atmosphere in our solar system, explains Space.com's Miriam Kramer. It resides around Mercury, as well as other large moons and asteroids. That makes Earth's moon ripe for types of data collection that could open up new understandings into other planetary bodies and their atmospheres.
The LADEE launch marks Virginia-based Orbital's first rocket launch carrying a payload destined outside beyond low-orbit Earth. The company has realized a series of guidelines for viewing, including the map below.
Also check out its annotated series of Google Earth screenshots outlining the path of the rocket and its potential visibility at different points on the East Coast in and around Virginia and Washington DC.