|Volume: 01, Issue: 11||08/27/2003|
The First European Lunar Probe to be LaunchedEurope's first probe to the Moon, SMART-1, is about to begin a unique journey that will take it into orbit around our closest neighbor—powered only by an ion engine, which Europe will be testing for the first time as main spacecraft propulsion.
The European Space Agency's SMART-1 spacecraft was delivered to Kourou, French Guiana, on July 15, 2003, and is currently being prepared for launch on an Ariane 5 rocket the night of August 28. The launch window will open at 8:04 p.m. local time and will remain open for 26 minutes.
The 367-kg spacecraft will share Ariane's V162 launch with two commercial payloads: the Indian Space Research Organization's Insat 3E and Eutelsat's e-Bird communication satellites. As the smallest spacecraft in the trio, SMART-1 will travel in the lower position, inside a cylindrical adapter, and will be the last to be released.
The generic Ariane 5 launcher will place these three payloads in a standard geostationary transfer orbit from which each will begin its own journey towards its final operational orbit. SMART-1, powered by its ion engine, will reach its destination in about 16 months, having followed a long, spiraling trajectory. SMART-1's ion engine will be used to accelerate the probe and raise its orbit until it reaches the vicinity of the Moon, some 350,000 to 400,000 km from Earth. Then there will be a series of gravity-assisted lunar fly-bys in late September, late October, and late November of 2004. SMART-1 will then be captured by the Moon's gravity in December of 2004 and will begin using its engine to slow down and reduce the altitude of its lunar orbit.
SMART-1 is not a standard space probe. As ESA's first Small Mission for Advanced Research in Technology, it is primarily designed to demonstrate innovative and key technologies for future deep-space science missions. Once it has arrived at its destination, however, it will also perform an unprecedented scientific study of the Moon. SMART-1 is a very small spacecraft (measuring just one cubic meter). Its solar arrays, spanning 14 meters, will deliver 1.9 kilowatts of power, about 75% of which will be used for the probe's solar-electric propulsion system.
In its role as technological demonstrator, SMART-1's primary goal is to test this new solar-electric propulsion system. This is a form of continuous low-thrust engine that uses electricity derived from solar panels to produce a beam of charged particles that pushes the spacecraft forward. Such engines are commonly called ion engines, and engineers consider them essential for future long-range space missions. SMART-1 will also test miniaturized spacecraft equipment and instruments, and a navigation system that, in the future, will allow spacecraft to autonomously navigate through the solar system. In addition, it will also test a new short-wavelength communication system, and a space communication technique by means of which SMART-1 will try to establish a link with the Earth using a laser beam.
Once it enters into a near-polar orbit around the Moon in January 2005, SMART-1 will also become a science platform for lunar observation. SMART-1 will search for signs of water ice in craters near the Moon's poles and provide data to shed light on the still uncertain origin of the Moon. It will reconstruct its evolution by mapping its topography and the surface distribution of minerals and key chemical elements. SMART-1 will be the second ESA-led planetary mission to be launched in 2003 after Mars Express in June.
Find out more about the European Space Agency at:
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