More than 40 years after the last Apollo astronaut left the moon, NASA's latest robotic explorer, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), is in orbit. Following a picture-perfect launch on Sept. 6, 2013, from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, LADEE is now investigating the twin mysteries of the moon's atmosphere and dust.
Maui resident Dr. Matt Wilkins is working on the Mainland for one of the chief companies, Applied Defense Solutions Inc. (ADS), which monitored and adjusted the orbit of the LADEE spacecraft as it approached the moon.
"Working with both NASA Ames Research Center and Space Exploration Engineering Corporation, ADS helped direct the LADEE spacecraft into lunar orbit using a complicated insertion maneuver," said Wilkins, a senior member of the ADS technical staff.
LADEE, NASA’s latest robotic explorer, is now investigating the twin mysteries of the moon’s atmosphere and dust. Researchers hope to find out what mechanisms drive the moon’s ultra-thin atmosphere by measuring its response to phenomena such as solar storms, impacts on the lunar surface and sunlight.
Image courtesy of NASA
Wilkins received his Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from Texas A&M University. A postdoctoral research assignment from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, brought him to the Maui High Performance Computing Center in Kihei for several years. Among his many contributions to the field, he is a founding member of the Space Surveillance Technical Committee for the American Astronautical Society. He worked on space research projects with Schafer Corporation on Maui until he joined ADS.
A few of Wilkins' specialties are space situational awareness, space object characterization and identification, astrodynamics, satellite constellation and formation design, orbit determination and prediction, space weather modeling and dynamic calibration of the atmosphere.
Now with ADS for almost two years, Wilkins is impressed with the company's "exquisite capabilities to do mission planning from early design to execution."
"It is a small company doing big things," he said.
ADS, headquartered in Columbia, Maryland, works mainly in space research and satellite tracking.
"For LADEE, the company is responsible for lunar trajectory and flight dynamics, the active control of the spacecraft after separation from the booster," said Wilkins.
"Part of our job is to determine the spacecraft's current orbit and predict where it will be in the future," he said.
"On the LADEE mission, we take observations and measurements to figure out its position," Wilkins explained. "We receive tracking data from many ground stations around the world."
The end result of this orbit determination work is a spacecraft ephemeris telling where LADEE has been in the past and another ephemeris describing its predicted path.
"This trajectory information, which has to be extremely accurate, is then sent to scientists who need LADEE's position in order to interpret their scientific measurements," said Wilkins.
The ADS LADEE team is led by Wilkins' colleagues--John Carrico, the ADS senior scientist, and Lisa Policastri, a flight dynamics engineer overseeing spacecraft orbit determination. This team monitored and adjusted the orbit of the spacecraft as it approached the moon and directed LADEE into lunar orbit using a complicated insertion maneuver sequence.
"This final maneuver placed LADEE into a stable lunar orbit, where it is collecting data during its planned 100-day science phase," Wilkins said.
The primary mission is to gather detailed information about the lunar atmosphere and conditions near the surface. Researchers hope to find out what mechanisms drive the moon's ultra-thin atmosphere by measuring its response to phenomena such as solar storms, meteor impacts on the lunar surface and sunlight.
"LADEE will scoop up particles from the atmosphere as well as dust that may be migrating across the lunar surface," said Wilkins. "Understanding moon dust is key to future missions because it gums up spacesuit seals and can interfere with rovers and other equipment."
While it orbits 37 miles above the moon's equator, the LADEE spacecraft is using three main instruments to study the lunar exosphere.
The Ultraviolet and Visible Light Spectrometer is determining the composition of the lunar atmosphere by analyzing the light signatures of materials it finds. The Neutral Mass Spectrometer is measuring variations in the lunar atmosphere over multiple lunar orbits with the moon in different space environments. The Lunar Dust Experiment is collecting and analyzing samples of any lunar dust particles in the tenuous atmosphere.
"Scientists would love to know if any new findings relate to the mysterious lunar glow that the Apollo astronauts spotted on their missions," noted Wilkins.
The Lunar Laser Space Terminal (LLST), an optical communications system that flew LADEE, delivered a technology display, the Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD). The new technique uses lasers instead of radio waves to achieve broadband communications with Earth.
"The importance of laser communication for future interplanetary spaceflight is enormous," Wilkins said. "The LLCD is NASA's first high-rate, two-way space laser demonstration."
The mission consists of space-based and ground-based components of a data downlink that is five times faster from lunar orbit than other current communication methods.
Wilkins compared the days of Internet dial-up to today's Websites loading at lightning speed.
"Just like you need your Web pages loaded quickly and securely, NASA scientists and engineers want the same quick connectivity with their data-gathering spacecraft," he said.
"NASA is moving away from their form of 'dial-up' radio-frequency-based communication to their own version of 'high-speed Internet', using laser communications," he added.
Currently, ADS is designing advanced trajectories and mission concepts for human spaceflight. In addition, they are involved in mission architecture, program management, working with NASA through the Space Act agreement and educational outreach.