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SMART success of moon mission

24 August 2006

The European Space Agency's (ESA) SMART-1 is nearing the end of its 3-year successful mission to the moon. The satellite will reach its final resting-place by crash-landing into the surface of the moon on 3 September 2006.

As Europe's first moon mission, SMART-1 has added greatly to what we understand about the moon and space exploration technologies.

Image of moon crater captured by the AMIE camera © ESA/Space-X Space Exploration Institute

Image of moon crater captured by the AMIE camera on SMART-1 © ESA/Space-X Space Exploration Institute

Professor Bernard Foing, ESA project scientist for the mission said 'SMART-1 has shown new views about the origin, evolution, and shaping processes of Earth's satellite. The analysis of data and the experience from the mission will be instrumental in planning future lunar exploration.'

Sara Russell, co-investigator on the mission and mineral expert at the Natural History Museum, took measurements of lunar samples. These were in the form of meteorites containing lunar material that had been chipped off the moon during impacts and fallen naturally to Earth. Sara says, 'As well as detecting the major elements on the moon's surface, the mission also yielded an opportunity to test technology that will now be used on many future space missions.'

The moon's minerals
Solar-electric engine used to propel SMART-1 © ESA

Solar-electric engine used to propel SMART-1 © ESA

An instrument built in the UK called D-CIXS is in the process of producing detailed maps showing the composition of the moon's elements. The results show the distribution of calcium, magnesium, aluminium, silicon and iron. These results will help scientists to determine if the moon was formed from terrestrial debris after a collision or from a planet-sized object that crashed into the Earth.

Professor Manuel Grande of the University of Wales, Aberystwyth who leads the D-CIXS instrument said, 'By measuring the X-rays emitted when the sun shines on the moon, we can analyse the chemical composition of the surface.'

It is hoped that lunar researchers can then use this important information to compare the chemistry of the lunar surface with rock samples returned from the Apollo missions. This will help us understand lunar geology on a global scale.

High resolution images

SMART-1's camera AMIE has been able to map specific moon features in multi-spectral wavelengths to a resolution of 40 metres across. Previously, the best digital maps of the moon were from the US Clementine mission with a resolution of 200 metres.

Solar propulsion

SMART-1 uses solar--lectric propulsion to travel to, and around, the moon's orbit. Electricity derived from solar panels produce beams of charged particles that drive the engine. This produces continuous low-thrust propulsion and as it requires very little fuel it is ideal for long-distance travel.

Crash landing

SMART-1 will soon crash-land into the moon's surface at an area called the Lake of Excellence, which is not actually a lake, but a plain. Its impact will be two kilometres per second. This shouldn't cause any damage as much faster landing meteorites frequently hit the moon.

SMART-1 was funded by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) with additional funds from the British National Space Centre .