November 26, 2004

Slow and Steady Wins Race for Europe’s Lunar Orbiter

BERLIN - A fuel-efficient, compact spacecraft has made it into lunar orbit, signaling Europe's first successful mission to the moon and putting the inexpensive probe on course to study the lunar surface.

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 130 pounds of the 181 pounds of xenon fuel it had aboard, said European Space Agency spokesman Franco Bonacina in Paris. That translates to more than 5 million miles per 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, said 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 3,100 miles of the moon Nov. 16, and will now begin spinning its way closer to the surface as it orbits, Bonacina said.

By mid-January the dishwasher-sized spacecraft will be in an elliptical orbit that will take it within 185 miles of the moon's south pole and 1,850 miles from the north pole, 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," 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.