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Moon mission LADEE arrives after an 'amazingly precise' looping flight (+video)

LADEE, NASA's latest mission to the moon, successfully slipped into lunar orbit on Sunday. LADEE's looping trajectory offers a low-cost, dependable path to the moon.

LADEE: Why NASA is going back to the moon
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More than 40 years after the last astronaut left the moon, NASA's next (robotic) explorer has arrived in lunar orbit. The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) arrived right on schedule Sunday morning to investigate the twin mysteries of the moon's atmosphere and dust, after a picture-perfect launch and transit.

"The launch people really worked well and gave us just an absolutely perfect launch," says Mike Loucks, one of the "astrogators" (space navigators) planning LADEE's trip from the Earth to the moon. "It was just unbelievably precise… which made our job easy after that!" Though the team had prepared contingencies for any number of bobbles or snafus, none were needed.

Throughout the month-long flight, "the onboard propulsion system on the spacecraft has performed flawlessly as well, and been amazingly precise," says Loucks, who with the rest of the LADEE flight team was exempted from the NASA shutdown because their mission had already launched and needed their monitoring and maneuvering. "It's been remarkable."

It's tricky to define exactly when LADEE "got to the moon," since the robotic explorer didn't (and won't) land. Maybe when LADEE started orbiting? That happened with the first Lunar Orbit Insertion, or LOI-1, at 3:57 a.m. PDT on Sunday morning. But by then, LADEE had already been in the moon's "field of influence" — where the moon's gravity pulls more strongly than Earth's — for almost a day. Even before that, on October 2, LADEE crossed the midpoint of its final loop, and was closer to the moon than to Earth.

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