After nearly two years circling the moon, a European robotic probe is wrapping up its mission while flight controllers prepare for a scientific grand finale: a crash onto the moon's surface this weekend.
SMART-1 was launched in September 2003 and reached the moon 14 months later for what was expected to be a six-month mission to test technologies for future robotic probes. The spacecraft, however, proved to be extremely robust, winning funding for two mission extensions.
In the end, the probe simply ran out of gas for its innovative solar-electric engine, one of several technologies tested on Europe's first Small Mission for Advanced Research in Technology (SMART) spacecraft.
It will be tugged out of orbit by lunar gravity late Saturday or early Sunday, crashing into a volcanic plain known as the Lake of Excellence, a fitting resting spot for a spacecraft that far surpassed scientists' expectations.
Flight controllers made a final series of maneuvers to position the probe so its crash onto the moon's surface would be detectable from Earth. Scientists using ground-based telescopes planned to scan the dust kicked up in the crash to detect chemicals in the lunar soil.
Break out your telescopes and be sure to be watching the southern portion of the moon on Sunday, September 3, 2006 at approximately 11:40pm Central Time. It won't be anything spectacular, but a plume of dust should be visible. It's definitely worth a look!
Be sure to check out the SMART-1 website for more information.