ESA's lunar probe closes on target

Moon orbit imminent

In a matter of days the European Space Agency's (ESA) SMART-1 spacecraft will enter orbit around the Moon. It will adjust its position and prepare for the scientific investigation of the lunar surface that will begin in January.

SMART stands for Small Missions for Advanced Research and Technology. Its main mission is to gather data that will help us understand how the Moon was formed. Current theory holds that the Moon is the result of a collision between the Earth and another body, approximately the size of Mars.

The satellite carries seven instruments including an infrared spectrometer, an imaging camera and D-CIXS, the X-ray spectrometer. It will conduct its 12 experiments over a period of six months. The instruments will send back data about the Moon's surface, orbit and plasma environment. Data on the moon's composition will help scientists develop a clearer idea of what happened when the moon was formed.

Lift off! - picture ESA

Once in the right orbit, the probe also will scan the lunar surface for resources for future, manned, missions. It will survey the craters at the South Pole, something that has never been done before, and will map the Peak of Eternal Light, a mountain top that is permanently sunlit. Scientists expect that craters near the mountain will contain water ice.

Lord Sainsbury, the government minister for science and technology, commented: "Mankind has looked at the Moon for centuries, been inspired by its beauty and wondered at its origin. With SMART-1, Europe is going to the Moon for the first time, at low cost and with exciting new technology. Best of all, we will do important science by exploring how the history of the Earth and the Moon is bound together."

The craft was launched from Kourou, French Guiana 13 months ago, and will drop into lunar orbit on 16 November. It has made the trip to the Moon powered by an ion-engine; a revolutionary new solar-electric propulsion technology, being tested for the first time on this voyage. Its path to the moon consisted of an ever increasing spiral orbit around Earth that gradually brought it closer to lunar capture point.

The craft's engine converts solar energy into electricity. This is used to heat the xenon fuel on board. On its 13-month, 380,000km journey it has used just 60kg of fuel, making it 10 times more efficient than traditional rockets. The British National Space Centre points out that a Mini would only be able to travel 1600 km on 60 kg of petrol. We'd like to add, however, that it would cover 380,000km rather faster. ®

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