Update: The Minotaur V with LADEE has launched! You can see photos in the LADEE Launch Group on Flickr, and my own long exposure photo from Fairfax:
Tonight at 11:27 PM EDT, a robot spaceship named LADEE will launch to the moon from Virginia’s Eastern shore, and if the sky is clear, you should be able to see it from DC!
LADEE, short for Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, is a NASA Ames Research Center probe designed to study the moon’s tenuous atmosphere, and determine if suspended moon dust is responsible for weird twilight rays seen by astronauts orbiting the moon on Apollo missions. LADEE will launch aboard an Orbital Sciences Minotaur V, a five-stage solid-fuel rocket derived from Air Force Peacekeeper missiles working with ATK STAR stages.
The Minotaur V rocket carrying LADEE will launch at 11:27 PM from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, right near Chincoteague Island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. That’s 111 miles from DC in a straight line, close enough to see quite clearly in the night sky.
Here’s the Orbital Sciences Minotaur V mission update page with viewing information, maps, and 3D simulations for our area.
Based on the first sighting map, DC will see the light from the Minotaur rocket over the Southeast horizon about 20-40 seconds after launch, rising to a maximum height of about 10 degrees, a bit higher than the height of the Washington Monument as seen from Lincoln Memorial.
From Lincoln Memorial the Minotaur V will appear somewhere over Jefferson Memorial, arcing into the sky towards the East, and reaching higher than the Washington Monument. The rocket will grow dimmer as it ascends, as it will be traveling faster and farther away from us, shedding its first stage and igniting its second. As it approaches the peak of its arc, it may blink out for several seconds as it coasts silently between second stage separation and third stage ignition. From there the rocket, if still visible, will appear to descend back to the horizon as its path takes it around the curvature of the earth, and ultimately to the moon.
If it’s really clear out, you might even see the fading light of the first and second stages, and the smoke trail left by the solid rocket motors.
At the time of this writing, we have a 95% chance of good weather for launch. If you plan to go out and watch the launch, we recommend you have the NASA app or a bookmark to NASA TV on your mobile device so you can follow prelaunch activities and a countdown live. (Keep in mind that the NASA TV mobile feed can be delayed by as much as 30 seconds, so by the moment you hear “Liftoff!” on the app the rocket might already be well on its way up and visible from your location.)
Just for reference, here’s what a Minotaur IV launch looks like, a similar solid-fueled rocket from which the Minotaur V evolved.
Photos and images via NASA and Orbital Sciences.