Thursday, August 31, 2006

SMART-1 crashing into the Moon

Amateur astronomers, grab your telescopes. A spaceship is about to crash into the Moon, and you may be able to see the impact.

The spacecraft: SMART-1, a lunar orbiter belonging to the European Space Agency (ESA).

see caption The impact site: Lacus Excellentiae (The Lake of Excellence), an ancient, 100-mile wide crater in the Moon’s southern hemisphere.

The time to watch: Saturday, September 2nd at 10:41 p.m. PDT (Sept. 3rd, 0541 UT).

Why is SMART-1 crashing? There’s nothing wrong with the spacecraft, which is wrapping up a successful 3-year mission to the Moon. SMART-1’s main job was to test a European-built ion engine. It worked beautifully, propelling the craft in 2003 on a unique spiral path from Earth to the Moon. From lunar orbit, SMART-1 took thousands of high-resolution pictures and made mineral maps of the Moon’s terrain. One of its most important discoveries was a “Peak of Eternal Light,” a mountaintop near the Moon’s north pole in constant, year-round sunlight. Peaks of Eternal Light are prime real estate for solar-powered Moon bases.

But now SMART-1 is running low on fuel. It has to come down sometime—and soon—so ESA mission scientists decided to crash it in a place where the crash can be seen from Earth and studied.