Lunar eclipse could doom NASA's LADEE moon orbiter

The moon turns red as the earth passes between the moon and the sun during total lunar eclipse in this file photo taken Dec. 10, 2011. Anjum Naveed, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Stargazers across the country are looking forward to the first eclipse of the year -- but this one could claim a space casualty.

The total lunar eclipse will take place in the pre-dawn hours next Tuesday morning, when the moon will be eclipsed by Earth's shadow. It will be visible throughout the Western Hemisphere, including the United States, if the weather is clear. The total phase will last 78 minutes, beginning at 3:06 a.m. EDT and ending at 4:24 a.m. EDT.

Safe to watch with the naked eye, the lunar eclipse should cast a bright orange or red tint across the moon.

Not safe from the eclipse, however, may be a NASA spacecraft that's been circling the moon since fall. The robotic orbiter LADEE was never designed to endure a lengthy eclipse, and scientists don't know if it can withstand the prolonged cold of the hours-long eclipse.

LADEE -- which stands for Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer -- was nearing the end of its mission anyway. Whether it freezes up Tuesday or not, LADEE will crash into the far side of the moon the following week as planned, after successfully completing its science mission.

Scientists expect LADEE's doomsday to occur on or before April 21, and NASA has started an online contest asking the public to guess the impact time.

The lunar eclipse on Tuesday will be the first of four eclipses expected within the next year: two lunar and two solar. The next one will occur April 29, when the Southern Hemisphere will be treated to a solar eclipse.


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