Launched September 2003, the Small Missions for Advanced Research in Technology, has been captured by the moon’s gravity and will begin adjusting its orbit over the next several weeks before beginning its scientific observations in January.
The probe is designed to inventory key chemical elements in the lunar surface and investigate the theory that the moon was formed following the collision of a smaller planet with Earth, 4.5 billion years ago, reported the Associated Press.
“The moon is a key witness of the early conditions when life emerged on our planet. As the daughter of Earth, she holds keys for understanding our origins and for preparing for the future exploration of the solar system,” said Bernard Foing, ESA’s SMART-1 project scientist, according to CNN.
SMART-1 also will look for signs of water in the form of ice within permanently shadowed craters at the moon’s poles.
The last crafts to orbit the moon were the Pentagon’s Clementine spacecraft in 1994 and NASA’s Lunar Prospector in 1998-99.
SMART-1’s X-ray mapping experiment in particular is expected to fill in some of the gaps left by past lunar orbiters.
“We have some elemental maps of the moon from Clementine and Lunar Prospector, but are missing information on the critical elements aluminum and magnesium, both key sources of information about the igneous differentiation of the moon,” said Paul Spudis, a lunar expert at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., CNN reported.
The probe is the first to test a solar-electric propulsion system, which is 10 times more efficient than the usual chemical systems employed when traveling through space, according to the AP.
Rather than burning fuel like chemical rockets, the new xenon-fueled engine converts sunlight into electricity via solar panels and uses it to electrically charge heavy gas atoms, which speed away from the spacecraft and propel it forward.
SMART-1 spiraled around Earth on its 13-month journey, which eventually brought it to its lunar capture point.