Europe's first spacecraft to the moon ended its three-year mission yesterday with a planned crash on the lunar surface, hitting its target at 2kps, or 7,200kph.
The impact, in a volcanic plain called the Lake of Excellence, was captured by observers on earth, and scientists hoped the resulting cloud of dust and debris would provide clues to the geologic composition of the site.
"That's it -- we are in the Lake of Excellence," said spacecraft operations chief Octavio Camino as applause broke out in the European Space Agency's mission control center in Darmstadt, Germany. "We have landed."
Minutes later, a video screen on the control room wall showed an image of the bright flash from the impact. The infrared image was captured by the Canada France Hawaii Telescope on Mount Kea in Hawaii.
"It was a great mission and a great success and now it's over," mission manager Gerhard Schwehm said.
During its months in orbit around the moon, the spacecraft scanned the lunar surface from orbit and took high-resolution pictures. But its primary mission was testing a new, efficient, ion propulsion system officials hope to use on future interplanetary missions including the BepiColombo mission to Mercury slated for 2013.
Launched into Earth's orbit by an Ariane-5 booster rocket from Kourou, French Guiana, in September 2003, Smart-1 used its ion engine to slowly raise its orbit over 14 months until the moon's gravity grabbed it.
The engine, which uses electricity from the craft's solar panels to produce a stream of charged particles called ions, generates only small amounts of thrust but only needed 80kg of xenon fuel.
The craft's X-ray and infrared spectrometers have gathered information about the moon's geology that scientists hope will advance their knowledge about how the moon's surface evolved and test theories about how the moon came into being.
On Saturday, mission controllers had to raise the craft's orbit by 600m to avoid hitting a crater rim on final approach. Had the orbit not been raised, the craft would have crashed one orbit too soon, making the impact difficult or impossible to observe.
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