Sep. 6, 2013 at 8:08 PM ET
Make your plans for a spectacular East Coast fireworks show on Friday night: That's when NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, or LADEE, is set to blast off from Virginia and light up skies from the Carolinas to Maine.
"This vehicle will be launching at night, so it should be easily visible from a lot of locations on the East Coast," Doug Voss, launch manager at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, told reporters last month during a pre-launch briefing.
LADEE (pronounced like "laddie," not "lady") is set for launch at 11:27 p.m. ET Friday from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops, atop a five-stage Orbital Sciences Minotaur 5 rocket. The blast from three of those stages could be visible from parts of the East Coast during the first three and a half minutes of flight.
Two viewing locations have been set up around the launch pad — at Robert Reed Park on Chincoteague Island, and on Beach Road spanning the area between Chincoteague and Assateague Islands. Depending on your location, you might be able to spot the Minotaur's shining point of light from as far away as Pittsburgh.
If the skies are cloudy, if the eastern horizon is obscured or if you're totally outside the viewing zone, you can still watch the launch on NASA TV. Live launch commentary is due to start at 9:30 p.m. ET. The chances of acceptable weather have been set at 95 percent — but if liftoff is postponed due to weather or technical problems, there are several backup dates for an evening launch.
The $280 million LADEE mission is aimed at characterizing the surface of the moon and its ultra-thin atmosphere before the place is stirred up by future lunar landings. China is planning to send a lander and rover to the moon by the end of the year, and commercial ventures are working on moon missions as well.
When LADEE was first conceived, it was seen as part of a series of missions leading up to human lunar exploration — but then NASA backed off from its plan to send astronauts to the moon. Now NASA is emphasizing the scientific insights that may be applied to other solar system environments, ranging from Mercury to the asteroids Ceres and Vesta.
"LADEE is part of a much broader scientific exploration," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's science mission directorate.
The mission could shed light on some of the moon's mysteries, such as the characteristics of moondust and whether it might be responsible for the faint glow that Apollo astronauts saw on the lunar horizon before sunrise. The probe's instruments could track molecules of methane, water and other chemicals in the moon's exosphere.
Sending data via laser light
The orbiter is also carrying an laser communication experiment that can send hundreds of millions of bits of data per second down to Earth. The data transmission speeds would be at least six times faster than what's currently achievable using radio-based systems, said Don Cornwell, mission manager for the Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration.
"We will be NASA's first high-rate, two-way laser communications demonstration," Cornwell said. If the experiment works, laser communication could become routine for interplanetary missions, perhaps starting with NASA's 2020 Mars rover.
"We've already been having discussions about, 'Could you do laser comm on a rover on the surface of Mars?' ... I think this is just the beginning of what will be replacing some of the radio frequency comm in the future," Grunsfeld said. "There's no question that as we send humans further out into the solar system, certainly to Mars, if we want to have high-def 3-D video, we're going to have laser comm sending that information back."
After launch, it will take about a month to transfer LADEE from Earth orbit to lunar orbit, and then another 40 days to commission the spacecraft for scientific observations. The science mission is scheduled to run for 100 days. After the mission ends, LADEE's orbit will gradually decay — ending with a crash landing that should send up a spectacular spray of moondust.
Correction for 11:22 p.m. ET Sept. 5: An earlier version of this report included an incorrect reference to the date of the LADEE launch.
Update for 8:25 p.m. ET Sept. 6: The launch is the main event for Friday night's installment of Planetary Radio Live, presented by the Planetary Society and KPCC public radio at the Crawford Family Forum in Pasadena, Calif. The 7:30 p.m. PT (10:30 p.m. ET) show is sold out, but there's a live video stream featuring host Mat Kaplan, astronomer Bruce Betts, Brian Day from the LADEE mission, UCLA's David Paige and perhaps even Bill Nye the Science Guy.
More about lunar missions:
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding +Alan Boyle to your Google+ circles. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.