Europe reaches the Moon!
ESA’s SMART-1 is successfully making its first orbit of the Moon, a significant milestone for the first of Europe's Small Missions for Advanced Research in Technology (SMART) spacecraft.
SMART-1 reached its closest point to the lunar surface so far - its first ‘perilune’ – at an altitude of about 5000 kilometres at 18:48 Central European Time (CET) on 15 November.
Just hours before that, at 06:24 CET, SMART-1’s solar-electric propulsion system (or ‘ion engine’) was started up and is now being fired for the delicate manoeuvre that will stabilise the spacecraft in lunar orbit.
During this crucial phase, the engine will run almost continuously for the next four days, and then for a series of shorter burns, allowing SMART-1 to reach its final operational orbit by making ever-decreasing loops around the Moon. By about mid-January, SMART-1 will be orbiting the Moon at altitudes between 300 kilometres (over the lunar south pole) and 3000 kilometres (over the lunar north pole), beginning its scientific observations.
The main purpose of the first part of the SMART-1 mission, concluding with the arrival at the Moon, was to demonstrate new spacecraft technologies. In particular, the solar-electric propulsion system was tested over a long spiralling trip to the Moon of more than 84 million kilometres. This is a distance comparable to an interplanetary cruise.
In all, SMART-1 clocked up 332 orbits around Earth. It fired its engine 289 times during the cruise phase, operating for a total of about 3700 hours. Only 59 kilograms of xenon propellant were used (out of 82 kilograms). Overall, the engine performed extremely well, enabling the spacecraft to reach the Moon two months earlier than expected.