European moonshot survives near-miss with lunar crater

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The Independent Online

Europe's first mission to the Moon narrowly avoided disaster yesterday when the landing craft almost crashed into the rim of a lunar crater.

SMART-1, launched by the European Space Agency and travelling to its destination for three years, was saved when the ground control team made a last-minute alteration to skim past the mile-high crater rim.

SMART-1 is due to complete its three-year voyage around 5am today, landing on a volcanic plain called the Lake of Excellence.

If it had crashed, it would have made it virtually impossible for scientists to observe the impact on the Moon's surface, which was one of the key objectives of the mission. The idea of the probe is to study the composition of the surface at the location where the probe is brought down.

The spacecraft has been taking high-resolution pictures of the surface with a miniaturised camera.

Studying the impact could increase scientists' understanding of how the Moon's surface evolved and help test a theory that it was formed after another astronomical body slammed into planet Earth millions of years ago.

ESA's mission operations chief, Octavio Camino, said the manoeuvre was completed successfully.

The agency is already celebrating a successful test of an experimental "ion" engine during this mission. They hope to use it for future missions, such as the BepiColombo mission to Mercury, a joint project with Japan's space agency due to launch in 2013. Nasa's Deep Space 1 probe, launched in 1998, also used an ion engine.

The SMART-1 mission launched into Earth orbit from the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guinea, on 27 September 2003. The craft, a metre-wide cube, has travelled more than 62 million miles.