SMART-1 is the first space mission of the SMART (Small Missions for Advanced Research and Technology) program of the European Space Agency (ESA). Launched in an Ariane-5 rocket on September 23, 2003 from Kourou, French Guiana, the spacecraft represents ESA's first mission to the moon. Because of its slow yet highly efficient ion propulsion drive, the spacecraft must orbit the Earth for twenty months in larger and larger orbits until it is finally captured by the moon in March 2005. The operation cost 100,000,000 euros, which is relatively inexpensive for a space mission.

Much Orbit About Nothing

Many believe ion propulsion to be the future of long distance space travel because it uses very little power to reach very large cumulative speeds. The technique is still in its infancy and SMART-1 is ESA's first attempt, so they chose to test the technology on a short mission. However, the craft will reach such small speeds on its own that it must use the Earth to slingshot it into a lunar orbit. The craft will orbit the earth nearly 600 times before it is finally caught by the moon's gravity. Once in orbit around the moon, SMART-1 will spend two and a half years in a highly elliptical polar orbit, coming as close as 300 kilometers and distancing as far as 10,000 kilometers.

Secrets of the Far Side

NASA's manned missions and Russia's robot sample-return missions only brought back rocks from the near side of the moon. The far side is thought to have a different composition, and the SMART-1 mission hopes to discover more about the properties of this side of the moon. Most scientists assume the moon was created 4.5 billion years ago when a Mars-sized asteroid collided with a fully formed proto-Earth. To verify this hypothesis, researchers must confirm that the moon contains many less of the heavy elements than Earth. Theoretically, heavier elements such as iron should have stayed in the larger of the two masses, while the lighter elements such as aluminum and magnesium should be more abundent in the satellite.

A Cubic Meter of Progressive Technology

The 366.5 kilogram body of the spacecraft is a cubic meter box filled with experimental technology. SMART-1 will test a form of laser communication while in orbit around the moon, an experimental form of self-guiding navigation, an ultracompact electronic camera and spectrometer, and a never before attempted experiment to detect the wake left by moon in the Sun's magnetic discharge. SMART-1 will also use these devices to try and detect the nodding of the moon, or the slight oscillations in the moon's orbit, which have never been detected up close.

Critical Mission Dates

  • September 23, 2003 - Launch
  • Oct 6, 2003- Ion drive tested
  • Dec 4, 2003 - Orbit changed to avoid patches of high radiation
  • March 2005 - Lunar orbit insertion / Data collection begins
  • September 2005 - End of mission

Other ESA Missions
·Double Star·
·Mars Express·
·Huygens Probe·