Engineers from NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., have successfully completed launch preparation activities for NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) observatory, which has been encapsulated into the nose-cone of the Minotaur V rocket at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. LADEE now is ready to launch when the window opens on Sept. 6, 2013.
After safely arriving at NASA Wallops in June, the LADEE observatory went through final preparations and close-outs, which included checking the spacecraft's alignment after its cross-country shipment, checking the propulsion system for leaks, inspecting and repairing solar panels, and final electrical tests. After all of the activities were completed, it was time to start some of the scarier more challenging portions of the launch preparations: spin testing and fueling.
To make sure that the spacecraft is perfectly balanced for flight, engineers mount it onto a spin table and rotate it at high speeds, approximately one revolution per second. The team measures any offsets during the spinning, and then adds small weights to the spacecraft to balance it. Once the spacecraft was balanced dry, we then loaded the propulsion tanks with fuel, oxidizer, and pressurant. The spin testing was performed again "wet," or with fuel, in order to see if the balance changed with the full fuel tanks. The final wet spin balance went very well.
The next step was to lift the LADEE spacecraft onto the fifth stage – or the top – of the rocket, and then spin that whole stack in order to balance it for when the fifth stage burns during the ascent. Before and after this spin balancing, various explosive charges were installed onto the spacecraft and fifth stage, which will be used during flight to enable the propulsion system and remove the cover of one of the science instruments. The combination of propellents, explosives, and spinning made all of this activity pretty challenging.
After all of that was accomplished, engineers mounted the LADEE observatory onto the fifth stage rocket motor and encapsulated it in the nose-cone – or fairing – of the United States Air Force's Minotaur V launch vehicle, operated by Orbital Sciences Corp., Dulles, Va. It was then hooked up to an environmental control system that will keep clean, dry, cool gas flowing into the fairing. After everything was ready, the combined LADEE and fifth stage motor in the fairing was moved from the clean room it had lived in all summer, out to the launch pad, and lifted on top of the rocket stack, with the first through fourth stages already in place.
We are now ready for launch when the window opens on Sept. 6.
LADEE Project Manager
NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.