More geopolitical(cosmopolitical?) than anything else, but kudos to the European Space Agency for going ahead with ion propulsion:
Europe readies to shoot for the moon LONDON (AP) -- Europe is to boldly go where it has never gone before -- using "Star Trek"-style technology to carry out its first mission to the moon.
The European Space Agency said that the innovative solar-powered engines behind its unmanned lunar probe, SMART-1, will transform space travel by propelling craft at higher speeds and greater distance than those powered by traditional rocket fuel.
"This is turning science fiction into science fact," said Professor David Southwood at a news briefing on the mission in London on Monday.
"It is a smart little devil and it really is leading the way for more lightweight intelligent craft."
After more than 40 years of Soviet and U.S. lunar exploration, the European mission is as much about testing new technology as exploring the moon itself.
The washing machine-sized SMART-1, which stands for Small Missions for Advanced Research in Technology, is powered by an ion engine that uses solar electric propulsion.
Some of the most famous spaceships in science fiction, including the Enterprise in "Star Trek" and the Discovery in "2001: A Space Odyssey" were powered by such engines.
Ion thrusters have been used just once before in space on NASA's Deep Space 1 mission, but the team behind the 110 million euros (US $122 million) SMART-1 say they will become the future of space flight.
SMART-1 will also use a battery of miniaturized instruments on its 18-month journey to the moon. One test will be the establishment of a communications link with Earth via a laser beam.
Digging into lunar past Once it arrives in orbit at the moon, the craft will use an X-ray in an attempt to map the whole of the moon's surface for the first time and to confirm the theory that the moon was formed when a Mars-sized object smashed into the Earth, flinging up debris that joined to become the lunar planet.
Professor Manuel Grande, a leading scientist on the project, described the mission as "a lot of firsts rolled into one mission."
"This is the first European mission to the moon, this is the first smaller, faster mission and this is the first solar-powered spacecraft," said Grande.
SMART-1 had been due to be launched September 3 in French Guiana, piggybacking on an Ariane-5 rocket. But project leaders said Monday they were delaying the launch to an unspecified date to help other teams that are using the rocket to launch their own satellites.
The ion engines on SMART-1 are 10 times more efficient and therefore faster than conventional rocket-fueled ones, and could slash years from interplanetary journeys.
The probe's engine uses solar panels that converts sunlight into thrust. The light is converted into electricity, which is then used to convert xenon gas atoms into ions.
This tiny matter is then thrust out of the engine at high speed, providing propulsion. The solar panels provide only 0.07 newton of thrust - the equivalent to the weight of a postcard. But as they build up speed continuously they can eventually travel far faster than a craft powered by traditional rocket fuel.
"Each time I've met Huffington, I wondered if she was not somehow the long-lost daughter of Madame Nicolai Ceaucescu, or a genetic cross between Martha Stewart and Count Dracula. Had this Greek-born harpy lived in medieval times, she would have been sewn up in a bag with a rooster and two snakes and thrown into the nearest river." -- Eric Margolis, Toronto Star
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