Darmstadt, Germany Europe's first spacecraft to the moon smashed into a volcanic plain as planned Sunday, signaling in a bright flash the end of a successful mission to test a new propulsion system and navigation technology for flights to other planets.
Staff at the European Space Agency's control center clapped when the SMART-1 orbiter hit a lunar hillside at 4,475 mph, coming down in the target zone a day after a hurried course correction.
The deliberate crash capped a three-year mission that tested new technologies such as a low-thrust ion engine that ESA hopes will inexpensively take other probes to Mercury and other planets. It also tested new ways of automating a spacecraft's guidance.
Ground controllers predicted the probe would hit the lunar plain called the Lake of Excellence at 20 seconds past 12:42 a.m. CDT. At 21 seconds past, spacecraft data suddenly stopped streaming onto a big screen above their consoles.
Controllers burst into applause as operations chief Octavio Camino announced, "We have landed."
Minutes later, the Canada France Hawaii Telescope on Mount Kea, Hawaii, relayed an infrared image of a white flash against the gray lunar landscape - SMART-1 as it struck what appeared to be a raised area.
During months in orbit around the moon, the spacecraft scanned the surface with X-ray and infrared spectrometers and took high-resolution pictures to collect information about geology that scientists hope will advance knowledge about how the lunar surface evolved.
But the SMART-1's primary mission was testing the ion engine that officials hope to use on the BepiColombo mission to Mercury slated for 2013.
The engine uses electricity from the craft's solar panels to produce a stream of charged particles called ions. It generates only small amounts of thrust but needed only 176 pounds of xenon fuel to power the craft, a cube measuring roughly 3 feet on each side.