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Sat, Apr 05, 2003

Europe's Ticket To The Moon

Smart-1 To Use Ion Propulsion System

It relies on the sun to power it on a mission to the moon. Europe's first lunar probe was unveiled Thursday by the European Space Agency.   

The craft, known as the Smart-1, will be launched in July for a two-year mission orbiting the moon to look for water, believed to be hidden deep in craters on the lunar surface. The satellite will also gather evidence to test the theory that the moon was created when a giant asteroid struck Earth during the early days of the solar system.

Light Weight But No Lightweight

Weighing just 815 pounds (370 kilograms) and costing $108 million, the craft is part of a European strategy to build spaceships smaller and more cheaply than NASA.

Smart-1’s solar-powered ion engines provide only a minuscule thrust, but can be run over a much longer period than the traditional chemical rocket thrusters used by earlier spacecraft. The technology was tested on NASA’s Deep Space 1 probe, which was launched in 1998 and was sent past an asteroid and a comet. Scientists at the European agency believe the engines will be an indispensable part of making longer space voyages to Mercury and Mars.

The Long Way

It will take Smart-1 three months after its launch from Kourou, French Guiana, to maneuver into orbit with the moon, and several more weeks to move into a tight lunar orbit. Once there, the satellite will use infrared light to search for water. The mission will also use X-rays to map the chemical composition of the entire lunar surface.

Project scientist Bernard Foing said if heavy elements such as iron are found to be relatively rare compared to lighter elements such as magnesium, it would strongly support the theory that the moon was formed from debris caused by a massive collision between the Earth and an asteroid or other heavenly body around 4.5 billion years ago.

“It’s believed that about the moon will be 80 percent composed of Earth material,” Foing said.

FMI: www.esa.int

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