Sun, Sep 03, 2006 - Page 1 News List

Thousands await spectacle of probe's collision with moon

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Scientists are making final preparations to steer a washing machine-sized probe into the nearside of the moon, an act of silent violence that will help unravel the mysteries of our celestial neighbor.

The Smart-1 probe, an experimental spacecraft built to test gadgetry for future missions, will end its journey by slamming into a dusty basin at 8,000kph, scattering debris over 78km2.

European Space Agency (ESA) researchers expect Smart-1 to collide with the moon at 6:43am today, but its shallow angle of approach means it might clip the 800m high mountains surrounding the intended crash site as early as 8.31pm last night.

Thousands of amateur astronomers were expected to train their telescopes on the landing site, known as the Lake of Excellence, in the hope of glimpsing the probe's final seconds, which mission controllers expect will leave a 10m wide scar.

Manuel Grande, a planet scientist at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Didcot, Oxford-shire, UK, and leading researcher on the Smart-1 project, said its mission was on target.

"We don't think there's much that can go wrong now. It's going to crash, and that's what we want," he said.

If the collision happens this morning, it will be recorded by telescopes in the US, South America and Hawaii, but if it crashed yesterday evening, the plume of moon dust may be visible from Europe. The impact should be visible through a 10cm telescope.

The US$150 million spacecraft has spent 18 months mapping the moon and collecting information on its chemical and mineral composition. The data will help answer questions about the moon's origin. The leading theory is that it formed after a violent collision between the Earth and a smaller planet some 4.5 billion years ago.

Using a detector that measures X-rays from the sun as they bounce off the moon, the probe was able to map surface levels of iron, aluminum, magnesium, calcium and silicon. Smart-1 made its way to the moon by spiraling outwards from Earth until it fell under the grip of the moon's gravitational pull.

"As the father of Smart-1, I feel a bit sad my baby will get such a rough landing. But this will give us a kind of Smart-1 sculpture on the moon, and that will be a monument to what Europe has done," said Bernard Foing, ESA's chief scientist.

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