Europe's unmanned spacecraft enters Lunar orbit

The SMART-1 spacecraft is about to mark the start of Europe's first mission to the Moon.

It will collect a range of data, some of which will be used to study the Moon's origins. SMART-1 is the first of ESA's 'Small Missions for Advanced Research in Technology' (SMART), which are low-budget missions testing new technologies for bigger projects. The main purpose of SMART-1 is to test a new way to &to=' target=_blank>travel in space. It is ten times more efficient than the usual systems used so far, informs EurActiv.

According to Ars Technica, the other big space news comes from &to=' target=_blank>NASA, which pulled off a successful test flight of their scramjet engine. The unmanned scramjet got up to almost Mach 10 in the course of its 90-second flight. That's fast enough to get anywhere on the globe in two hours. The military is of course interested in the technology for use in missiles and bombers, but it might also see use in space launches.

A scramjet is an air-breathing rocket that sucks in oxygen from the atmosphere and uses it to burn its fuel. Traditional rockets must carry liquid oxygen on-board, which adds to their weight and decreases their payload capacity.

Smart-1 has used solar panels to drive an ion, or charged- particle, engine on a "leisurely" voyage to the moon, according to mission documents. The engine has been fired up intermittently during the craft's journey, with momentum carrying it the rest of the time, ESA's chief scientist, Bernard Foing, said in a telephone interview on Nov. 12.

It is only the second time that ion technology has been used as a space mission's primary propulsion system, the first being NASA's Deep Space 1 probe in 1998, ESA said.

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