Nearly four decades after the first moon landing by a Soviet probe, Europe launched its first mission to the moon on Sunday.
The SMART 1 will spend up to 2.5 years seeking clues to the moon's origins.
An Ariane rocket blasted off from the Kourou launch center in French Guiana early Sunday morning carrying an unmanned SMART 1 probe into space. The solar-powered craft is due to reach the moon at the end of next year, a test run for later flights to the outer limits of the solar system.
The 370 kilo, €110 million probe is designed to test new types of space technology. An acronym for Small Missions for Advanced Research and Technology, the SMART 1 is the first European spacecraft to be driven by solar-powered electric propulsion. Until now, rockets have been powered by fuel-burning cells. The new ion drives accelerate more slowly than chemical rockets, but they can also last years longer. The vessel’s lighter weight also offers an advantage over traditional fuel-burning rockets. It's lighter load means it is capable of carrying more scientific instruments.
European scientists hope the mission can help answer questions about the genesis of the moon and what kind of influence it had on Earth's development.
Neil Armstrong plants US flag on the moon.
"Our knowledge of the moon is filled with astonishing gaps," said Bernard Foing, the scientist in charge of the lunar mission. Even after the first manned mission to the moon led by American astronaut Neil Armstrong, there are still many questions left unanswered. "We want to find out more about how the Earth-moon system was created and how it has developed," Foing said.
Using the probe’s measurement instruments, Foing and his team plan to investigate the mineral composition of the moon’s surface, which they hope will shed light on the satellite’s origins. If, for example, the probe finds high levels of magnesium, steel and aluminum on the surface, it could strengthen a prominent theory that the moon was created after an asteroid struck a still molten earth close to four and a half billion years ago.
There's also a small, lightweight German spectrometer on board, which has been designed with the intention of establishing once and for all if there is water on the moon, possibly in some of the craters near the lunar poles. If the moon does contain water, it could be used as a vital resource for any future space station there.
The space probe is also carrying special instructions, which will enable it to carry out an intensive survey of the moon's surface while in lunar orbit. An X-ray detector is designed to identify the chemical composition of surface elements. An onboard video camera can flash images of the probe's findings back to earth.
The SMART-1 lunar probe
The mission also seeks to determine the efficacy of solar-electric propulsion systems and whether they are a viable alternative to chemical propulsion. If the technology proves successful, ESA already has future missions on the drawing board, including trips to Mercury and the Sun, using solar-electrically driven probes. The development of nuclear-powered probes is also being considered for journeys to the outermost reaches of the solar system.
Solar power isn’t the only innovation in SMART 1. The probe also uses new communications technologies. It sends its data back to earth using a laser beam that’s directed at a reception station on the island of Tenerife, part of the Spanish Canary Islands off the coast of Africa.
The new navigation and communication system represents a further step in the development of unmanned space travel. In the future, the system could also enable a new generation of "autonomous" probes that could steer themselves, using stars and other heavenly bodies as navigation tools. Under that scenario, managers at the Earth station would only have to take over the controls in an emergency situation.