At the end of September, the European Space Agency launched its first mission to the moon. The probe’s main goal is to test new technologies, including an ion-propulsion system. Such a system exerts a tiny but steady thrust that will slowly propel the craft, known as SMART (Small Missions for Advanced Research in Technology)-1, to a January 2005 lunar rendezvous.
Touring the moon in a highly elliptical polar orbit, SMART-1’s visible-light and near-infrared camera will study the moon’s topography. At longer infrared wavelengths, a spectrometer will map the minerals on the moon’s surface and look for evidence confirming that water ice resides within permanently shadowed lunar craters. On the poles, such craters never receive direct sunlight, but light scattered from crater rims may illuminate the ice and provide enough photons for the spectrometer to analyze. Data from two earlier U.S. missions have already hinted that frozen water lies at the bottoms of these dark craters (SN: 10/10/98, p. 239).
An X-ray spectrometer on the new probe is expected to produce the first X-ray map of the entire lunar surface, providing new clues about the moon’s origin.
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