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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 March, 2003, 13:22 GMT
Europe targets the Moon
By Jonathan Amos
BBC News Online science staff

moon smart
The vessel will have an "ion thruster"
Europe's first mission to the Moon looks set for a July blast-off.

Scientists and engineers working on the Smart 1 spacecraft are hoping to fly around the 15th of that month - but it all depends on the status of the launcher.

Currently, Europe's rockets are grounded following the high-profile failure of a vehicle in December last year.

But it seems the rocket's operators, Arianespace, are confident enough about the outcome of a post-accident review of systems to give Smart 1 a provisional launch date.

"We've just been told we can go for July," Dr Sarah Dunkin, one of the lead project scientists on the mission told BBC News Online. "But Arianespace did say this date assumed the review would turn out alright."

X-ray map

The news is a big fillip for everyone working on Smart 1. Originally pencilled in for a March launch, there were fears the lunar mission would be put back many months following the loss of the Ariane 5-ECA (ESC-A) rocket over the western Atlantic on 11 December.

Suggests Mars-sized object crashed into early Earth
Debris thrown into space aggregated into the Moon
Supported by similar composition of Earth and Moon rocks
Hopefully, the spacecraft - which is undergoing final testing - will soon be transported to Europe's spaceport at Kourou in French Guiana and mounted on its launcher.

Smart 1's primary objective is to test new technologies that can advance future planetary exploration. The craft is using an innovative form of propulsion - an ion thruster - that will take it on a 15-month spiral to the Moon.

Once in orbit around the Earth's satellite, the craft will send back data about the lunar surface and environment - again trialling novel technologies.

Dr Dunkin is the principal investigator on D-Cixs, an instrument that will produce an X-ray map of the Moon. The spectrometer, which is "the size of a toaster", will determine the absolute abundances of key elements (aluminium, magnesium and silicon) in the rocks that make up the lunar surface.

Mercury mission

"This information is vital if we are to confirm theories about the formation of the Moon," Dr Dunkin, from the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, UK, said.

"The favoured theory at the moment is one that saw the Moon result from a collision between the early Earth and an object the size of Mars. The D-Cixs data could help us say for sure if this is right."

Although two Apollo missions did gather X-ray data, Dr Dunkin said Smart was needed to give global coverage.

Swiss researchers will have a high-resolution camera on Smart; the Germans will have an infrared spectrometer on the spacecraft.

Much of the technology trialled on Smart will find its way on to Europe's Bepi-Colombo mission to Mercury which should launch at the end of this decade.

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