Key role for UK as probe nears Moon destination

Artist's impression of the SMART-1 mission
11 November 2004

BNSC press release. UK scientists and engineers are again at the forefront of space exploration, said Science Minister Lord Sainsbury today, as Europe's first Moon mission nears its destination.

The European Space Agency's (ESA) SMART-1 spacecraft, launched 13 months ago, is due to reach the Moon's orbit around 16 November. It has been propelled by revolutionary new solar-electric propulsion technology, also known as an 'ion engine'.

As well as testing this new technology for future missions, SMART-1 will make the first comprehensive study of key chemical elements on the lunar surface. Using UK technology, it will search for ice in the craters at the Moon's South Pole, where the temperature never rises above -170 degrees C, and so check out available resources for future lunar exploration.

Lord Sainsbury said: "Once again UK scientists and engineers working together have made a major contribution to Europe's space programme, which keeps us at the forefront of planetary exploration.

"Mankind has looked at the Moon for centuries, been inspired by its beauty and wondered at its origin. With SMART-1, Europe is going to the Moon for the first time, at low cost and with exciting new technology. Best of all, we will do important science by exploring how the history of the Earth and the Moon is bound together."

Artist's impression of SMART-1 ion engine
Artist's impression of SMART-1 ion engine

SMART-1's ion engine uses solar energy to generate electricity that then heats xenon fuel and is ten times more efficient than traditional rockets. SMART-1 has used only 60kg of xenon fuel to cross the 380,000 km between the Earth and the Moon. By way of comparison, a Mini car would travel just 1600 km on 60 kg of petrol.

The Department of Trade and Industry and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) have contributed around €12 million to ESA for the mission.

Part of the money was used to fund a crucial component of SMART-1, the D-CIXS instrument built in the UK by the CCLRC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, a member of the British National Space Centre partnership.

The shoebox-sized camera will use unique X-ray sensors to map the Moon's geology and allow scientists to draw up new three-dimensional models of the lunar surface.

SMART-1 will be looking at the darker parts of the Moon's South Pole for the first time, mapping the Peak of Eternal Light, a mountain top that is permanently sunlit, and surrounding craters which are believed to contain water-ice.

SMART-1's instruments will send back data about the Moon's surface, orbit and plasma environment. The main reason to gather the data is to help answer the basic question of how the Moon formed? The best theory is that a Mars sized body hit the young Earth, blasting material from both out into space where it clumped together to make the Moon. By understanding how much of what material is in which places, scientists will narrow down the options.

Notes to editors

1. SMART-1 is Europe's first probe to the Moon and the first in a series of Small Missions for Advanced Research and Technology (SMART). The spacecraft was launched from Kourou, French Guiana, on 27 September 2003, aboard an Ariane 5 rocket. It is expected to reach lunar orbit between 15 and 17 November.

2. SMART-1 will make observations and take measurements for at least six months. The satellite payload consists of 12 technological and scientific investigations performed by seven instruments, weighing just 19 kg in total. It is carrying three remote sensing instruments: an infrared spectrometer, an imaging camera and D-CIXS, the X-ray spectrometer.

3. The prime UK science involvement is with D-CIXS, which has been developed by Principal Investigator Professor Manuel Grande and his team at CCLRC's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. D-CIXS will help to determine the composition of the Moon and provide the missing pieces to the jigsaw about how the Moon was formed. Other UK institutions involved in D-CIXS are: University of Sheffield; Queen Mary, University of London; the Natural History Museum; Amargh Observatory; University College London, Mullard Space Science Laboratory; University of Manchester and the University of Southampton.

4. The UK industrial involvement featured:

  • SEA Group Ltd, which produced the digital unit for the ka transponder on KaTE, an instrument that will test more efficient communication techniques with Earth
  • e2v technologies, which have supplied the X-ray optimised CCDs for D-CIXS
  • SciSys Ltd, which have provided the mission control systems flight dynamics software and operations.

5. BNSC is a partnership of Government Departments and Research Councils with an interest in the development or exploitation of space technologies. BNSC is the UK Government body responsible for UK civil space policy, to help gain the best possible scientific, economic and social benefits from putting space to work.

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