The Ariane 5 rocket placed the lunar explorer and two satellites, including an Indian module, in orbit a few minutes after taking off at 8:14 pm (2314 GMT) from the European Space Agency (ESA) launch centre at Kourou, in French Guiana on the northeast coast of South America.

 

The ESA’s first lunar explorer SMART-1 will be steered into an elliptical orbit around the Earth before heading slowly for the moon to carry out observations from December 2004.

 

15-month journey

 

SMART-1 will begin a 15-month journey to reach the lunar orbit. From its perch it will scan the Moon for up to 30 months, beaming back what ESA officials say will "unravel some of the secrets of our neighbouring world".

 

Once there, it will search for signs of water and ice and provide data on the still uncertain origin of the Moon.    

 

SMART-1 will cover a distance of 100 million km to reach the Moon with only 60 litres of fuel," Giuseppe RACCA, ESA Project Manager said before the launch. 
   

"The main form of propulsion will be electric, charged by the satellite's solar panels," he said.

 

The 370 kg probe is also intended to demonstrate innovative technologies such as solar-electric propulsion that will be needed for future deep-space missions.

   

"SMART-1 will unravel some of the secrets of our neighbouring world"

ESA officials

"Thirty-five years after Apollo and the Russian missions, there remains much we don't know about the Moon," David Southwood, ESA's Director of Scientific Programmes, told a news conference in Kourou.

   

"With SMART-1 we can test propulsion in deep-space orbit. The next step, I hope, will be a Mars mission," he said.

 

ESA has hailed SMART-1 as an example of a “faster, better, cheaper” mission costing only 110 million euros ($126 million) - about one-fifth of a major ESA science mission.

 

The 162nd takeoff of a European launcher also placed in orbit two geostationary satellites, the Indian INSAT 3-E and the European e-BIRD, 41 minutes and 40 seconds after takeoff.

  

The flight had initially been scheduled for August 28 but was postponed on two occasions in order to allow the Indian Space Research Organisation to carry out extra checks on its communications satellite before launch.