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Last Updated:  Friday, 4 April, 2003, 13:53 GMT 14:53 UK
Mapping the Moon
As the European Space Agency (Esa) reveals more details of its first Moon mission, BBC News Online's Helen Briggs looks at the renaissance in lunar science.

Smart 1, Esa
There is very good science that can be done with smart machines and robots
Prof Manuel Grande
Anyone who has seen the remarkable footage of the historic Apollo landings will have no doubt about the fascination the Moon holds for us.

As Manuel Grande, a leading British scientist on the European project puts it, the Moon is part of our world, and we see it every day.

Yet despite its relatively close proximity to us, and the wealth of lunar space missions in the 1960s and 1970s, he believes there is much left to learn.

In fact, a "new science" of the Moon is starting to unfold, according to Professor Grande, with the launch this summer of the first European mission carrying the first UK experiments.

Shorter cruise

The spacecraft, Smart 1, is currently going through final tests at Esa's research centre in the Netherlands (Estec).

The lunar probe should have left Earth by now but its launch was put back after a failed rocket launch last December.

A new launch date has been set for mid-July, but Professor Grande, of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory's Space Science and Technology Department, is not bothered by the wait.

Smart 1, Esa
Smart is Europe's first solo mission to the Moon
Compact (1 metre wide) and inexpensive (100m euros)
Testbed for new propulsion, miniaturisation, astronomy and communication technologies
"Summer is quite good for us," he told BBC News Online this week. "The cruise is shorter and the illumination is better when you get there."

Smart 1's main objective is to test new technologies that can take spacecraft ever further into deep space.

The craft is using an innovative form of propulsion - an ion thruster - that will take it on a 15-month journey to the Moon.

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.

"There's a lot of pride in Smart 1," said project manager Giuseppe Racca. "We're all very enthusiastic about it. In the evening when I look at the Moon it doesn't seem true that something which I've contributed to making will soon be orbiting there."

The mission has important scientific goals, too. Once in orbit around the Earth's satellite, the craft will map the Moon.

Giant impact

Professor Grande's team is in charge of D-Cixs, an instrument that will produce an X-ray map of the Moon.

"The Moon has been crying out for that measurement to be made," he says.

Pat Rawlings/SAIC/NASA JSC -- Mark Dowman en Mike Stovall/Eagle Engineering, Inc./NASA JSC -- Clementine/BMDO/NSSDC -- LunaCorp/Robotics Institute
Smart 1 is one of the precursor missions of a renewed lunar exploration programme
Dr Bernard Foing
"It's the measurement you need to make if you want to see if the Earth and the Moon came from the same place. That is the experiment that is going to give us the new science."

Although theories abound, we still do not know precisely how the Moon was made.

One idea is that a Mars-sized object smashed into the juvenile Earth, flinging up debris which later merged to form the Moon.

If this actually happened, the Moon should contain less iron than the Earth, compared to lighter elements such as magnesium and aluminium.

By measuring the absolute amounts of these chemical elements comprehensively for the first time, Smart 1 might just provide the answer.

Smart 1 will be the first European mission to the Moon and maybe not the last.

Other space agencies too are setting their sights on the Moon, with talk of a manned mission by China.

Robotic village

According to Professor Grande, there is still a great appetite for lunar exploration despite the fact astronauts have been there before.

"Landing on the Moon was a spectacular feat but I don't think the importance of the Moon diminishes," he says.

Smart 1, Esa
The ion thruster will take Smart on a 15-month spiral to the Moon
"There is very good science that could be done by people on the Moon but equally there is very good science that can be done with smart machines and robots."

Smart 1's project scientist Dr Bernard Foing can already see that future.

"Smart 1 is one of the precursor missions of a renewed lunar exploration programme. We are looking at what could follow, perhaps a lander and rovers," he told BBC News Online.

"It could lead to a robotic village with contributions from different countries - robots which can work with each other and are very intelligent. They could deploy large infrastructures for astronomy and also conduct some life science experiments on the Moon."

Europe targets the Moon
04 Mar 03  |  Science/Nature
Space agencies take new look at Moon
27 Jul 02  |  Science/Nature
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12 Dec 02  |  Science/Nature
New view of Moon
12 Aug 02  |  Science/Nature
The legacy of Apollo
14 Dec 02  |  Science/Nature

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