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Fly me to the moon

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The first European mission to the moon is scheduled to blast off in October

ALTHOUGH many missions have been sent to our lunar neighbour, the lure of the moon remains enormous. If all goes well, in October, another attempt to prise free a few more lunar secrets will launch from French Guiana. Scientists from the European Space Agency (ESA) are looking for clues that may shed light on the moon's origins, and also search for hard evidence of water-ice in craters near the poles.

The tiny, 370kg (816lb), probe known as SMART-1 will hitch a ride into space with two larger commercial payloads. And although the mission is relatively cheap at euro100m ($111m), it will carry out one of the most comprehensive “global” explorations of the moon done so far.

After launch, SMART-1 will get its oomph using solar power to drive a novel ion engine. This expels xenon ions in a propulsive jet. Although this cannot match the whoosh of a chemical rocket (the thrust the ion drive generates is equivalent to the weight of a postcard), it can go on pushing gently for months.

SMART-1 is a formidable piece of design. It is packed with scientific instruments such as a miniaturised camera, an infra-red spectrometer and sensors to measure solar wind and other electrical currents. But for those who believe that the moon was formed from the debris of a monstrous collision between the Earth and a smaller planet, the X-ray spectrometer is probably the most important instrument on board.

This will map for the first time iron, magnesium, aluminium and silicon over the moon's entire surface. If the ratio of magnesium and iron on the moon conforms with scientists' predictions it will provide evidence that the moon really is a chip off the old block.

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