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European spacecraft in lunar orbit

Berlin — A fuel-efficient, compact spacecraft has made it into lunar orbit, signalling Europe's first successful mission to the moon and putting the inexpensive probe on course to study the lunar surface, officials said Tuesday.

Almost more impressive than reaching its destination was the slow and steady way the SMART-1 craft puttered its way there — flying 13 months in ever expanding circles around the earth using a cutting-edge ion propulsion system. The spacecraft used only 59 kilos of the 82 kilos of xenon fuel it had aboard, according to European Space Agency spokesman Franco Bonacina in Paris. That translates to more than 8 million kilometres a gallon.

The fuel consumption was less than expected, and the success of the mission has raised hopes that the technology can be used to send other craft far deeper into space, where the chemical propulsion systems that power conventional rockets would be too expensive or unworkable. “Europe has proved that it is able to fly a spaceship with ion propulsion alone,” Giorgio Saccoccia, one of the ESA's propulsion specialists, told reporters at the ESA's control center in Darmstadt, in southern Germany.

Launched into Earth orbit from French Guiana on Sept. 27, 2003, atop a conventional booster rocket, the SMART-1 probe made it to within 5,000 kilometres of the moon Monday, and will now begin spinning its way closer to the surface as it orbits, Mr. Bonacina said. By mid-January the dishwasher-sized spacecraft will be in an elliptical orbit that will take it within 300 kilometres of the moon's south pole and 3,000 kilometres from the north pole, Mr. Bonacina said.

“Today we have celebrated the successful technology mission, and now we start with science — we want to do imaging of the surface and study the chemistry of the moon,” Mr. Bonacina said. The ESA is hoping to use state-of-the-art equipment to take images of the surface from different angles and X-ray and infrared technology to allow scientists to draw up new three-dimensional models of the moon's surface. SMART-1 will also be looking at the darker parts of the moon's south pole for the first time, and searching dark craters for signs of water, ESA said.

Over the last 13 months, the 367-kilogram probe has been edging its way toward the moon in a mission controlled from the ESA's operations centre in Darmstadt. It measures about a metre on each side, and solar panels, which help provide ion — or solar-electric — propulsion, spread 14 metres. Unlike conventional rockets, no fuel is “burned”; instead, the solar panels provide electricity to charge the xenon gas atoms, which accelerate away from the spacecraft at high speed and produce forward thrust.

The surprising fuel efficiency of the spacecraft means that the agency might be able to extend its six-month scientific mission by up to a year, if it can find the additional funding, Mr. Bonacina said. When the mission is eventually complete, the probe will crash onto the moon's surface.

The mission marks the second time that ion propulsion has been used as a primary propulsion system. The first was the Deep Space 1 probe launched by NASA in 1998.

SMART-1, short for “Small Missions for Advanced Research and Technology,” was developed for ESA by the Swedish Space Corporation with contributions from some 30 contractors in Europe and the United States. It took off aboard an Ariane-5 rocket in September 2003.

The total cost for the mission is $142.3-million (U.S.), about a fifth of what is required for a typical major space mission.

The success of the mission provides a much-needed boost for the European space program, which is still smarting from its failed attempt to land a probe on Mars last year. The British-built Beagle 2 was launched on the ESA's Mars Express orbiter, and was supposed to touch down on the Red Planet to begin its search for life on Dec. 25, 2003, but scientists have found no trace of the lander.

As the project failed, two U.S. spacecraft landed on Mars and sent back many pictures and extensive scientific data.

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Guest MikePapaKilo

SMART-1 will also be looking at the darker parts of the moon's south pole for the first time, and searching dark craters for signs of water, ESA said.


As the project failed, two U.S. spacecraft landed on Mars and sent back many pictures and extensive scientific data

One wonders if it's time that some of these clever space toys try to take some pictures of what the whole world wants to see, snapped by high resolution cameras on our own little satellite moon. Human foot prints on the surface, an American flag, couple of lunar landers (or their remnants), a lunar rover, tire tracks......

(a light bulb from a studio flood light, a candy wrapper) laugh.gif

An Apollo skeptic, I have often wondered why the moon was always bypassed in favour of long-range Mars landers with hi-res cameras. And why the probes that do go to the Moon seemingly conveniently fail to take pictures of the areas where there may be souveniers that are purported to have been left behind in the 70's.

Probably all eroded away by meteor showers. Perhaps even, as the Professor from Gilligan's Island might say, "Worn away by nebulae-ic nimbocumulae, or inter-stellar ionic cataplasmic particulae." huh.gif

Any other Apollo-skeptics among us ??

MPKosmo...not! dry.gif

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Not a skeptic but a lover of the movie that had this skeptisism as its premises...but I forget what the heck it was called!!! It had an awesome Hughes 369/Stearman chase sequence in it too. biggrin.gif

On the same thought...if it took several hundred millions of dollars to get to the moon, why on earth would you take pictures of somewhere you've already been!

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Guest MikePapaKilo

why on earth would you take pictures of somewhere you've already been!

Not saying "go back" per se. How about a few drive-by photo's ? There's that segment of the population, me included, that does not believe there is/are lunar sites to go back to, because the next time will be the first time.

Regarding the millions to get there: The biggest amount of money would have been the $$ paid to have the "players" swear they'd been there. I still enjoy the claim that they went to the moon with less computing power than what I have sitting here on my desk. laugh.giflaugh.gif

Some time back there was a story in the news about a new telescope being built in France that would scan the Sea of Tranquility to photograph remnants of the first lunar expedition. Can't recall anything about photo's taken. Maybe it's still under construction.... Not the lunar site -- the telescope !

It is also interesting to note that despite reaching Mars, the U.S now has an interest in getting "back" to the Moon. Bush has stated that he wants the U.S to return to the lunar surface before China achieves its goal of a lunar landing. I would venture to say that the U.S has a strong interest in planting evidence that was first photographed somewhere in the vast expanses of Groom Lake. They just have to put it all in a box, if they can find all of it and get to the moon before China does.

Capricorn 1: James Brolin and O.J Simpson and Sam Waterston. Quite an interesting concept back then, and looking back, easy to believe. Great flying too!

Cheers !


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The computing power that powers your average airbus is less power than was on your desk 10 years ago.

Remember that most of the aircraft that were designed 30+ years ago were designed WITHOUT computers at all.

Why not have the SMART-1 take pictures of the landing sights. The equipment is still there and should be perfectly preserved.

The movie WAS Capricorn 1 and was a mission to Mars. Good Movie.


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