A small spacecraft has made it into lunar orbit, marking a key milestone in Europe's first successful mission to the moon and setting the stage for the craft to begin studying the lunar surface, a European Space Agency spokesman said Tuesday.
The SMART-1 probe made it to within 3,100 miles of the moon Monday morning and will now begin spinning its way closer to the surface as it orbits, said ESA spokesman Franco Bonacina in Paris. By mid-January the dishwasher-size spacecraft will be in an elliptical orbit that will take it within 185 miles of the moon's south pole and 1,850 miles of the north pole, he said.
"Today we have celebrated the successful technology mission, and now we start with science -- we want to do imaging of the surface and study the chemistry of the moon," Bonacina said.
Since its launch 13 months ago, the 809-pound probe has been slowly working its way toward the moon in a mission controlled from the ESA's operations center in Darmstadt, Germany.
To reach lunar orbit, it used 130 pounds of the 181 pounds of xenon fuel it had aboard -- less than expected and a feat that has raised hopes that its ion propulsion technology can be used to send other craft longer distances.
"It works out to something like 1.24 million miles per quarter gallon, which is quite an achievement," Bonacina said.