September 4, 2006

European Scientists Hail Successful Moon Mission

DARMSTADT, Germany -- Europe's first probe to the moon has provided key information that will pave the way for future inter-planetary missions and shed light on the earth's violent origins, scientists said on Monday.

The European Space Agency's (ESA) unmanned SMART-1 spacecraft ended its three-year mission to test new propulsion technology and explore the lunar surface by crashing into the near side of the moon on Sunday.

"The SMART-1 goals have been fully achieved," Giorgio Saccoccia, head of ESA's aerothermodynamics and propulsion division, told a news conference in Darmstadt. "SMART-1 was a technology genius."

The main goal of the mission was to test the use of a new electric propulsion system and communications techniques that ESA plans to use on future flights to other planets, including the BepiColombo mission to Mercury planned for 2013.

The electric propulsion system reduces flight times, cuts mission costs and allows for bigger payloads when compared to traditional chemical propulsion.

The SMART-1 orbiter spent 16 months in close orbit around the moon, studying the many craters on the lunar surface to help understand the collisions that caused them.

"The moon is a laboratory where you can study early rocky planets. It's a history book," said Bernard Foing, a project scientist at ESA. "These bombardments also took place on earth in its early history."

Lunar scientists suspect a huge collision between the newly formed earth and a small planet created the moon.

When results from the mission are fully analyzed -- a process that will take many years -- they may support or challenge that theory.

ESA scientists said SMART-1 -- which stands for Small Mission for Advanced Research and Technology -- had yielded better results than expected and shown the world that Europe, which has devoted far less resources to space exploration than the United States, was a big player.

"What we have shown is that Europe can do these things," said David Southwood, ESA's director of science.

In 2007 or 2008, India's Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft will go into orbit around the moon, equipped with the same infrared and X-ray instruments that SMART-1 carried.