Postcard arrives from Europe's lunar probe
Lots of craters, not many locals
The first pictures from the SMART-1 lunar probe, the first European spacecraft to have reached lunar orbit, have arrived on Earth. The images were snapped from altitudes of between 5000km and 1000km above the lunar surface during a test of the craft's instruments.
This picture shows two large craters. The largest is called Brianchon, and the second largest, at the bottom of the image, is called Pascal. Researchers use the shadow lengths to calculate the depth of the craters, and the height of the crater rims.
"This image was the first proof that the AMIE camera is still working well in lunar orbit," says AMIE principal investigator Jean-Luc Josset of Space-X.
The craft arrived at its destination in mid-November 2004, 13 months after it launched from Earth; it did not travel by the most straightforward of routes. Although the moon is only 380,000km away [Only? - Ed] in a straight line, SMART-1 orbited the Earth more than 300 times, and travelled a total distance of 84mkm. This could have got it to Mars and back, quite comfortably, if it had travelled in a straight line.
When it first arrived it was at risk of missing a stable orbit and either crashing into the surface, or skipping past the moon altogether. Mission scientists used the ion-engine to control its descent, and it has now spent the last two months gradually spiraling towards the surface.
Now that its orbit is stabilised, SMART-1 will scan the lunar surface for resources, particularly water, for future, manned, missions to the moon. The European Space Agency says it will continue its medium resolution survey until 9 February. Astronomers hope the data it sends will reveal more about how the moon first formed. ®