Since its Ariane launch from Kourou in September 2003, the small but remarkable SMART-1 satellite has been silently spiralling its way to the Moon. As from mid November, it will be captured by the lunar gravity. Next January it will reach its final orbit and start science observations. SMART-1 is a technology demonstrator into which the European Space Agency has packed many innovative space techniques to be used on future interplanetary missions. Above all, it has validated a solar-powered ion engine as the main propulsion system, used for the first time on a European science satellite.
Compactness and miniaturisation are key features of SMART-1 and its science instruments. EuroNews 'Space' magazine has met two of the Swiss astronomers behind its miniature lunar colour camera called AMIE.
"Our team is extremely motivated and flexible," explains designer Jean-Luc Josset, Director of the Space-X Space Exploration Institute in Neuchâtel. "We rose to the challenges of providing a light-weight unit for a very small satellite. In just five years, we packed it all into only 500 grams, and now we are able to take unique pictures of the Moon."
In its final operational orbit, SMART-1 will be circling between 3,000 and 300 kilometres over the Moon's poles. AMIE will be able to map a 2,000 km large impact basin on the far side of the Moon, created by a giant bombardment 4 billion years ago. It will also look at polar craters whose bottom is never reached by sunlight.
Other SMART-1 science instruments will also contribute to a first comprehensive survey of key chemical elements on the lunar surface. " With AMIE we hope to map inside permanently shadowed areas. The SIR spectrometer will be obtaining the surface composition," explains Bernard Foing, ESA's SMART-1 project scientist. "The mission may be able to confirm the presence of permanent ice which may have been brought by meteorites before being trapped in the coldest areas."
The AMIE camera has already demonstrated its qualities during the journey to the Moon. It has looked back and taken vivid pictures of mother Earth. It also observed from space the total lunar eclipse on 28 October.
"We were in a strategic position when we obtained these views of the unlit Moon," recalls Stéphane Beauvivre of the Space-X Institute. "SMART-1 was then 300,000 km from our planet, between the Sun and the Earth, and our Moon was even farther at more than 600,000 km. The eclipse was followed this way for the very first time. We were overjoyed seeing the entire planet and to follow the Moon passing into the Earth's shadow and being totally occulted."
In a few weeks time, the AMIE camera will be opening more new ground, snapping the Moon in colour at close quarters and from a variety of viewing angles. Scientists will be getting unique data that will help them better understand its composition and how it was formed. One thing is sure: the Moon will have to smile for the AMIE camera!
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