The US Air Force Space and Missile Systems Centre has placed an order for the first Minotaur V launch vehicle that will place Nasa’s lunar atmosphere and dust environment explorer (LADEE) probe in orbit.

The LADEE probe will orbit the moon to examine the atmosphere and lunar dust environment and determine the global density, composition, and time variability of the lunar atmosphere.

The Minotaur V, ordered under the orbital / suborbital programme-2 (OSP-2) contract, is a five-stage launch vehicle capable of launching satellites weighing up to 650kg to geosynchronous transfer orbit or satellites weighing over 400kg to trans-lunar and other Earth-escape trajectories.

The order brings the total number of Minotaurs procured by the US Air Force including space launch and target vehicles to 28 since the programe began in 1997.

The order is the first order of a Minotaur V designed to launch US government satellites into higher-energy orbits for space exploration and other activities beyond low-Earth orbit.

The LADEE mission onboard the Minotaur V is scheduled for launch in May 2012 from Wallops Island, Virginia.