Although I usually have words of criticism for Europe, the European Space Agency’s new SMART-1 probe is a potentially groundbreaking advance in deep space propulsion. The probe is powered by an engine that runs on solar power and produces a stream of charged particles to generate thrust. The SMART-1 probe weights only a few hundred kilograms and cost only 110 million Euros ($126 million) – which is only a fraction of the cost of most lunar missions.
SMART-1 will use its engine to slowly accelerate towards the moon where will begin a six-month mission looking for water and studying the moon’s origins.
With China ready to begin a manned space program, the ESA developing innovative new space technologies, NASA is too busy sending astronauts into low earth orbit and occasionally killing them to do much else. The US space program needs a reboot towards cheaper and more efficient launch technologies before the US falls further behind in space research.
UPDATE: Chet reminds me that NASA’s Deep Space One probe was in fact the first spacecraft to use an ion engine for propulsion. Deep Space One was launched in 1998 and managed to snap rare images of Comet Borrelly in 2001.