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The Engineer

The Life and Times of Donald F. Simmons

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SMART on its way to the Moon

The European Space Agency successfully launched the Small Missions for ADvanced Research Technology (SMART) spacecraft Saturday, as a secondary payload on an Ariane 5 rocket carrying two communication satellites.

The craft is currently in high orbit about the Earth, and will use an experimental ion engine to slowly boost itself over the next 16 months to the Moon. Why so long? The engine thrust is equivalent to the weight of a postcard. Still, the ion engine is much more efficient than a chemical rocket, so much less fuel is needed. As it heads higher and higher, it'll begin being tugged by the Moon and will be captured in March 2005.

While testing the engine is the primary point of the mission, once it gets to the Moon it'll perform global mapping in infrared and X-rays to help refine mineral and chemical maps.