WALLOPS ISLAND, United States - NASA launched an unmanned spacecraft Friday that aims to study the Moon's atmosphere, the US space agency's third lunar probe in five years.
Blazing a red path in the night sky, the spacecraft lifted off at 11:27 pm (Saturday 0327 GMT) aboard a converted Air Force ballistic missile known as the Minotaur V rocket from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
"The spacecraft is in good health and a good orbit at this point," said NASA commentator George Diller about half an hour after the launch. The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) aims to learn more about the atmosphere and dust while circling the Moon.
When US astronauts last walked on the Moon four decades ago, they learned that dust could be a huge problem for sensitive spacecraft and equipment, said space expert John Logsdon.
"If we were ever to go there with people for long duration, the dust gets in everything. It's not smooth dust like a piece of sand on the beach. It's made of very, very small fragments," said Logsdon, a NASA adviser and former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
"All the Apollo crews complained about the lunar dust getting everywhere." US astronauts first walked on the Moon in 1969, and the last explorers of the Apollo era visited in 1972.
The Moon's atmosphere is so thin that its molecules do not collide, in what is known as an exosphere.
Exploring that exosphere will be a $280 million solar and lithium battery-powered spacecraft about the size of a small car - nearly eight feet (2.4 meters) tall and five feet wide.
After launch, LADEE aims to hurtle itself beyond Earth's orbit so it can circle the Moon.
The journey there will take about a month.