Image copyright NASA Image caption Spirit is still orbiting the Moon, 39 years after it first launched into space in 2003
NASA is preparing to launch a new Earth-Moon mission in February – following the completion of the last mission in 2013.
The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) – the eighth and final mission to send a spacecraft to the Moon – will ride piggyback on the Centaur rocket.
At least five successful launches are required before the Moon is reached.
The last time a space craft did this, an American astronaut was on board.
LADEE is set to launch on 17 February 2019, but if the path needs adjusting, the mission could head off-course.
Image copyright NASA Image caption The spacecraft carries a £22.5m package of science experiments
As per regulations, the station will be switched off for several weeks to allow ISS astronauts time to prep for the mission’s launch.
LADEE’s parent spacecraft is being used to explore water and organics in the lunar atmosphere.
Scientists plan to determine whether the lunar dust’s dense structure or electric field is similar to the Earth’s.
They are also hoping to better understand how air quality and the impact of solar radiation could affect life in an unexplored lunar orbit.
Image copyright NASA Image caption LADEE’s parent spacecraft, EOS-1, will orbit the Earth
LADEE’s study of dust in the lunar atmosphere will answer scientists’ most fundamental questions about the moon’s air, says NASA.
Image copyright NASA Image caption An artist’s concept of the LADEE lunar probe outside the Earth-Moon Lagrange point
LADEE has been collecting its samples since September 2014 and is also the first spacecraft to orbit the Moon since the last mission, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, in 2011.
NASA hopes to make LADEE last for a whole year.
“The first two years for the Voyager spacecraft were the longest periods of time in human history for any mission,” said engineer Todd May.
“We expect LADEE’s mission, which follows the same open-ended approach, to last for multiple orbits around the Moon, providing us with similar types of observations and insights.”
However, there are a few warning signs before launch: a damaged fibre cable on EOS-1, engines that aren’t supposed to burn as much fuel during the slow descent to the Earth.
Image copyright NASA Image caption The EOS-1 craft’s engines will not burn as much fuel during the slow descent to the Earth
After it was originally developed to go to Mars, the LADEE mission has shifted to use the Moon as a transit point.
“LADEE is a lifetime mission, so it’s an important mission for keeping the human habitation of the Moon consistent,” said Erika DeJong of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.