By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Oct 7 - Politics may be keeping most of NASA's workers home, but that didn't stop the U.S. space agency's new moon probe from achieving lunar orbit, officials said on Monday.
The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, or LADEE, blasted off on September 6 aboard a small rocket that placed the spacecraft into a highly elliptical orbit around Earth.
After three trips around the planet, LADEE on Sunday was in precise position to fire its braking rocket, let itself be captured by the moon's gravity and then settle into lunar orbit.
The timing was not ideal. The ongoing partial shutdown of the U.S. government has sidelined about 97 percent of the NASA's 18,000 employees.
But among those still on the job were LADEE's flight controllers, who monitored the do-or-die maneuver, said deputy project scientist Greg Delory, with NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.
Over the next two weeks, LADEE will tweak its orbit so that it ends up about 155 miles above the lunar surface, an ideal vantage point for studying the gases surrounding the moon and search for electrically charged dust rising from the ground.
The government furlough also was not expected to impact a LADEE laser communications demonstration slated for later this month, Delory said.
Last week, NASA brought back workers preparing a new Mars orbiter for launch on November 18. Skeleton crews, meanwhile, are overseeing NASA's communications satellites and science probes.
(This story has been corrected to show that the flight controllers monitored but did not manage maneuver, in the fifth paragraph)
(Editing by Tom Brown and Philip Barbara)