NASA's newest robotic explorer rocketed into space late tonight in an unprecedented moonshot from Virginia. The LADEE spacecraft, which is charged with studying the lunar atmosphere and dust, soared aboard an unmanned Minotaur rocket about 11:30 Eastern. It was a change of venue for NASA, which normally launches moon missions from Cape Canaveral, Fla. But it provided a rare light show along the East Coast for those blessed with clear skies.
The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer is taking a roundabout path to the moon, making three huge laps around Earth before getting close enough to pop into lunar orbit. LADEE, which is the size of a small car, is expected to reach the moon on Oct. 6. Scientists want to learn the composition of the moon's ever-so-delicate atmosphere and how it might change over time. Another puzzle, dating back decades, is whether dust actually levitates from the lunar surface. (Read more NASA stories.)