Smart-1 Smackdown

This image, taken by the Advanced Moon Imaging Experiment (AMIE) on board ESA’s SMART-1 spacecraft, provides an oblique’ view of the lunar surface towards the limb, around the Mezentsev, Niepce and Merrill craters, on the far side of the Moon. AMIE obtained this sequence on 16 May 2006. The imaged area is centred at a latitude of 73º North and a longitude of 124º West.
Credits: ESA/Space-X

The European Space Agency’s Smart-1 mission ended on September 3rd 2006, at 07:42 CEST (05:42 UT). Its final lunar resting place is located at 46.2º West longitude and 34.4º South latitude. Appropriately for such a successful mission, this area of the Moon is known as the ‘Lake of Excellence’. During its 3-year lifespan, Europe’s first mission to the Moon advanced both lunar science and the technology that underpins it.

UK participation in Smart-1 was funded by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council with additional funds from the British National Space Centre. PPARC CEO Professor Keith Mason hailed the mission’s success.

"Smart-1 has been amazingly successful, both in proving new technologies that will help shape how Europe explores space in the future and in dramatically increasing our understanding of the Moon. With Smart-1 UK and European scientists and engineers have made a significant contribution to future international lunar exploration programmes."

Scientific Success

Smart-1’s scientific instruments have subjected the Moon to new scrutiny and worked so well that the mission was extended by an additional year. The UK instrument D-CIXS (a demonstrator compact X-ray spectrometer) has obtained mineral maps of the Moon’s composition, looking at the distribution of calcium, magnesium, aluminium, silicon and iron. These will help to determine if the Moon was formed from terrestrial debris after a collision or mostly from a planet-sized object that crashed into the Earth.

Mineralogy map of Lacus Excellentiae on the Moon, showing the nominal SMART-1 impact orbit (central black line: orbit 2890) and possible impact location. The two adjecent orbits, 2889 and 2891, and their perilune locations are also indicated. Note that 1 degree of latitude corresponds to 30 km on the Moon, and that one arcsec from Earth subtends 1.8 km on the Moon centre. Credit: ESA & Clementine Project, BMDO, NRL, LLNL

Professor Manuel Grande of the University of Wales, Aberystwyth who leads the D-CIXS instrument said, "By measuring the X-rays emitted when the Sun shines on the Moon, we can analyse the chemical composition of the surface. We then compare the abundances of key minerals to those found on the Earth to understand how much of the Moon’s material came from our planet originally."

D-CIXS plays an important role in understanding the Moon and gives us new insight into whether the samples brought back from manned missions are typical of the lunar surface or not. Manuel Grande said "Where we can make comparisons with American and Russian landing sites, the agreement is good, which gives us confidence when we look at the data from areas of the Moon that have not been visited by humans."

D-CIXS has proved so successful that an enhanced version (called CIXS) is now under construction to fly on the Indian Chandrayaan mission to the Moon in 2007/8.

Smart-1’s camera AMIE has also added greatly to our understanding of the Moon. Previously, the best digital maps of the Moon were from the US Clementine mission with a resolution of 200 m. At its best, Smart-1 mapping reveals features 40 m across.

Professor Bernard Foing, ESA Project Scientist for the mission said, "Smart-1 has shown new views about the origin, evolution, and shaping processes of Earth’s satellite. The analysis of data and the experience from the mission will be instrumental in planning future lunar exploration."

Technology Success

Smart-1 was designed to test new technologies for exploring space as well as to conduct science. It is Europe’s first mission to use an ion engine instead of chemical combustion to reach its destination. Smart-1 made the trip from Earth orbit to lunar orbit using gravitational assistance and an ion engine that created a very slow gentle thrust from charged xenon. Whilst slower in the short term than a conventional engine, it uses very little fuel which means that it is an ideal technique for missions that have to travel a long way without carrying a large volume of fuel – such as ESA’s forthcoming BepiColumbo mission to Mercury.

Smart-1 also tested new radio communications systems and miniaturisation of science instruments that ESA’s hopes may be useful for future missions.


Because the mission extended a year longer than planned, Smart-1 exhausted its supply of Xenon fuel. Without fuel, the Moon’s gravity brought it naturally into impact on the surface, as has happened with lunar probes since 1959. ESA engineers controlled the time and location of the collision in order to conduct a final scientific investigation, ensuring that the impact could be watched from Earth so that telescopes could study the dust plume from the crash and analyse the composition of the surface of the Moon. Although the area of the Moon where Smart-1 landed is called the Lake of Excellence (Lacus Excellentiae), it is in fact a plain, not a lake.

Remote-sensing instruments on SMART-1 scan the Moon’s surface. Credit: ESA

Professional and amateur ground observers all around the world – from South Africa to the Canary Islands, South America, the continental United States, Hawaii, and many other locations – were watching before and during the small SMART-1 impact, hoping to spot the faint impact flash and to obtain information about the impact dynamics and about the lunar surface excavated by the spacecraft. The quality of the data and images gathered from the ground observatories – a tribute to the end of the SMART-1 mission and a possible additional contribution to lunar science – will be assessed in the days to come.

UK software experts SciSys were a key part of the team controlling Smart-1. Alan Batten, Head of Space at SciSys said, "Mission operations often go unnoticed in space programmes but Smart-1 has been a real interplanetary adventure for us, exploring techniques in spacecraft automation that have never been tried before in Europe."

When it arrived at the Moon’s surface, SMART-1 was travelling at 2 kilometres per second. That’s much slower than a natural meteoroid – for instance Leonid meteoroids arrive on the Moon at 70 kilometres per second. SMART-1 went in at a grazing angle between 5 and 10 degrees. The impact was not damaging to the Moon, which has frequently been struck by harder impacts from meteorites. All the elements in Smart-1 also occur naturally on the Moon.

Related Web Pages

Noah’s Ark on the Moon
SMART-1 Star Tracker, ESA
Peaks of Eternal Light
Linking the Earth to the Moon
The Smart One
SMART-1 Final Days
Deflecting Don Quijote