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Return to the Moon - Pursuing Our Destiny in the Sky -
Our 8th Continent, the Moon

Q. What kind of information about the Moon did the SMART-1 spacecraft bring back?

SMART-1 was the first European technology mission to travel to the Moon. Its two main objectives were to flight-test a solar-electric propulsion system (ion engine), and to study the topography of the Moon and the composition of its minerals. The satellite was launched in September 2003, and we arrived at the Moon after a long journey of about 14 months. In lunar orbit, we used some of the instruments to study the origins of the Moon and its early evolution, but also to map and study the processes that shape the lunar surface. We have an observation instrument that's like a miniature camera, and we also have a spectrometer, which measures X-rays. From that we can derive the elemental composition of the Moon. And we also have an infrared instrument that can map minerals on the Moon. Data gathering and analysis are in progress now.

Q. Why did SMART-1 impact on the Moon in September 2006? What did you find out from the event?

European Moon Explorer SMART-1(Courtesy of ESA - AOES Medialab)

Lunar horizon as seen by SMART-1 during the few hours prior to its Moon impact (Courtesy of ESA/SPACE-X, Space Exploration Institute)

Completing its mission after about a year and a half, SMART-1 had very little fuel left and it impacted on the Lake of Excellence on the near side of the Moon as scheduled. The location was chosen because of its geological attraction and its ease of observation with ground-based telescopes. SMART-1 impacted at 2 km per second at a grazing angle below 5 degrees, so the impact energy was not that great and the impact to the Moon was also relatively small. As the satellite approached impact, we monitored the lunar surface at close range, and then studied the debris clouds and the lunar surface during the first few minutes after impact. We watched the process of impact and saw a flash, and some material ejected at the moment of the event. It was quite a scene, as I have been working on this mission for 10 years, since its development in 1996. SMART-1 not only succeeded in observing the structure of the Moon but also proved the spacecraft's technology. Currently, there are no new spacecraft orbiting the Moon, but all the experience and scientific data gained will be used for future lunar exploration missions.

Q. Can you explain Europe's past Moon missions?

Many European scientists were involved in early Moon missions, for instance in some of the American Apollo missions. The first experiment deployed on the Moon was an experiment with Switzerland to measure the composition of the solar wind from the ground. And we had a strong interest in the community to study the planetary geology of the Moon. Russia and the United States were always ahead of us in terms of lunar and planetary exploration, but SMART-1 finally made it possible for us to carry out Europe's own lunar mission.

Q. What about future European missions?

We have future lunar landing missions planned, but currently there is no ongoing European lunar exploration mission. We are collaborating with some countries on their lunar exploration missions. For India's lunar explorer Chandrayaan-1, for example, which will be launched in 2008, we are rebuilding some of the instrumentation that was used on SMART-1. And we are working with our Japanese colleagues. SMART-1 data are being used to help them prepare for their lunar orbiting satellite SELENE, which is going to be launched this year.

Q. What do you think is the international significance of Japan's lunar exploration program?

The Japanese team is excellent, a very dedicated team of both scientists and engineers, who have worked together to define the SELENE mission. And the SELENE mission is a very comprehensive suite of 15 instruments. Not only are they going to study scientific questions about the Moon's origins and structure; they will also take measurements that will help prepare the next steps of exploration -- putting robots, landers, rovers, even a robotic village on the surface of the Moon, and later a human base. We will be very interested in helping once SELENE is in operation around the Moon.

Q. Do you think international cooperation is important for the exploration mission?

Yes, it is important because the Moon is the common heritage of mankind. It belongs to all of us. We have to share what we learn from the Moon about our origins, about the history of the Earth. But also, it's a place that is part of our future together. And then it's also a way to learn how work with other colleagues. We can make joint discoveries and develop joint technical projects together.

Q. What attracts you to lunar exploration?

What is attractive is, first, what we can learn about ourselves. We can use the Moon to study processes that work on Earth. And we can better understand the structure of the Earth, the evolution of our rocky planet. We can also study, for instance, the record of the early moments of the solar system, when there was a lot of bombardment due to asteroids. And the Moon is also interesting, at least for the future, as a place where we can go as humans. We can learn how to work and live outside the Earth. It will be interesting to explore the Moon for resources and observe lunar objects. And going to the Moon is the first step towards Mars exploration. It's a place where we can learn to live in extreme environments so that we can go further in the solar system, to Mars. Studying the Moon expands our possibilities.

Q. Would you like to go to the Moon?

Yeah, I've been there already. But just with my robotic baby, SMART-1. My brain was there. But yes, one of the things within a 20-30-year timeframe, there is a possibility that some of us will be able to go there.

Q. Why are people interested and why we are going back to the Moon now?

People are interested because the Moon is really part of our daily life. Everybody knows where the Moon is, from when we are little kids. And we know that the Moon is a reflection of our life, the evolution of the Earth. But also, it's a place that is so close that we know that it could be the next step when we want to go beyond the Earth. The Moon is the 8th continent of the Earth. American astronauts have been there. And we have been there, with robotic probes from Russia, Japan and Europe. And now it's a place where all the countries have the possibility to contribute to robotic and human exploration.

Bernard H. Foing
SMART-1 Project scientist, European Space Agency (ESA), European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC)
Prof. Foing works as a space scientist in lunar and planetary exploration, and solar/stellar astrophysics. He has been Co-investigator of space missions such as SOHO, XMM and Mars-Express. He has conducted studies of lunar orbiters and landers. He is the father of SMART-1, the first European mission to the Moon, following it as Principal Project Scientist from conception in 1996 to final lunar impact in September 2006. Prof. Foing has worked at ESA as Head of the Research Division, and as Chief Scientist in its Space Science Department. He is Executive Director of the International Lunar Exploration Working Group (ILEWG). At ILEWG, he has been promoting international collaborative projects on the Moon, such as a global robotic village, and a human base by 2020.