New Jersey will have a front row seat to America's return to the moon.

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To make sure that the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment (LADEE) spacecraft is perfectly balanced for flight, engineers mount it onto a spin table and rotate it at high speeds, approximately one revolution per second. (NASA Ames)

A Minotaur V rocket will lift off between 11:27 p.m. and 11:31 p.m. from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia carrying the robotic spacecraft Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment (LADEE) to begin a 100-day, $280 million mission to study lunar dust and the moon's atmosphere. It's the first moon mission ever launched from Virginia.

With clear skies predicted for tonight New Jersey will be able to see the Minotaur climb over the horizon on its ride to space.

Looking up into the southern and eastern sky you will see the various stages of the rocket. NASA says that as a reference, when you look at your fist with your arm fully outstretched, it spans approximately 10 degrees.

If you are in southern and central counties.the highest point the Minotaur V will reach is approximately 13 degrees above the horizon, or just slightly more than a fist's width. The contours shown stop below 5 degrees. It is unlikely that you'll be able to view the rocket when it is below 5 degrees due to buildings, vegetation, and other terrain features.

LADEE elevation map for New Jersey (NASA)

LADEE  will be the first spacecraft to be launched into outer space from Wallops.

The unmanned Minotaur rocket consists of converted intercontinental ballistic missile motors. A peace treaty between the United States and Russia specifies the acceptable launch sites for those missile parts; Wallops is on that short list.

All but one of NASA's approximately 40 moon missions — most memorably the manned Apollo flights of the late 1960s and early 1970s — originated from Cape Canaveral. The most recent were the twin Grail spacecraft launched two years ago this weekend. The lone exception, Clementine, a military-NASA venture, rocketed away from Southern California in 1994.

LADEE patch (NASA)

Just last week, China announced plans to launch a lunar lander by year's end.

Earth's moon is relatively close, and by studying its atmosphere, scientists will learn about similar atmospheres in places farther afield, Noble said.

Scientists also are eager to measure the lunar dust and see whether the abrasive, equipment-clogging particles actually levitate right off the surface. None of the previous moon missions focused exclusively on the atmosphere and dust.

It will take LADEE — the size of a small car coming in under 1,000 pounds — one month to get close enough to the moon to go into lunar orbit, followed by another month to check its three scientific instruments. Then the spacecraft will be maneuvered from 30 miles to 90 miles above the lunar surface, where it will collect data for just over three months.

The mission will last six months and end with a suicide plunge into the moon.

NASA is inviting amateur astronomers to keep an eye out for any meteoric impacts on the moon once LADEE arrives there on Oct. 6. Such information will help scientists understand the effect of impacts on the lunar atmosphere and dust environment.

View of LADEE's launch from Princeton University Stadium (NASA)

Hitching a ride on LADEE is an experimental laser communication system designed to handle higher data rates than currently available. NASA hopes to eventually replace its traditional radio systems with laser communications, which uses less power and requires smaller transmitters and receivers, while providing lightning-fast bandwidth.

NASA was hot on the lunar trail when it announced the LADEE mission in 2008. But the effort to return astronauts to the moon was canceled by President Barack Obama in 2010.

The latest target destinations for human explorers: an asteroid, then Mars. The debate continues as to whether the moon is a more practical starting point.

The Air Force Minotaur V rocket was built by Orbital Sciences Corp. The Virginia-based company is scheduled to make its first-ever supply run to the International Space Station in just two weeks, using its own Antares rocket. Wallops will host that launch as well.

The Associated Press contributed to this report