ESA's Smart-1 takes its first close-up images of the Moon

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Wednesday, January 26, 2005 The European Space Agency's (ESA) lunar probe SMART-1 has taken its first images from a low orbit around the moon, returning images of great detail. SMART-1 caps a streak of major planetary missions by the ESA in the past year.

Two features of SMART-1 have brought particular attention to the project: the ion drive and a sophisticated navigational software.

The probe features a low-thrust, long-duration ion drive, where ionised particles are accelerated by electromagnets and ejected from the motor of the probe to provide propulsion. The energy for this is supplied by solar panels, potentially allowing months of thrusting.

The probe arrived in lunar orbit on November 15, 2004. The ion drive has been firing for much of the time since, leading the probe to orbit ever closer to the lunar surface.

The coupling of the camera and the navigational system will allow more precise mapping of the moon's features than ever before. Using very precise positioning, the system will be able to measure the angles of shadows to such a degree that researchers will be able to build a very accurate topographical map of the moon's surface features.

The series of images were taken at an altitude of 5,000 to 1,000 km above the Moon to test the onboard camera. On February 9, the ion drive will be turned on once more to drop the probe to a height of 3,000 to 300 km above the surface. From then on, it will begin the bulk of its scientific investigations.

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