Another LADEE instrument will sniff out gases dislodged from the surface by solar radiation. Once thought to have no atmosphere at all, the Moon has been found to have a wispy 'exosphere' containing molecules such as helium and potassium. LADEE will search for silicon, magnesium and other elements ejected from Moon rocks, as well as materials deposited on the Moon by comets, including methane and carbon dioxide. The spacecraft will also demonstrate a new laser-communication system designed by NASA to boost the bandwidth of data transmission from space.
A successful mission could spur other spin-offs of the modular spacecraft, says Elphic. But so far, the only endeavour to have shown interest in the modular design publicly is the company Odyssey Moon, based in the Isle of Man. The firm had been jockeying to win the $30-million Google Lunar X PRIZE, a competition to put a lander on the Moon by 2015. In partnership with NASA, Odyssey Moon planned to adapt the modular orbiter blueprints for its entry. But in November, the company teamed up with competitor SpaceIL, and now, Odyssey Moon will help the Israeli non-profit organization to build its own spacecraft instead.
With no other missions lined up, Klupar worries that the clock may be ticking for the modular experiment. "There is a time limit on these things," he says. "If we wait 5 years for the next mission, the technology will have aged."