ESA Euronews: Setting off to Mercury with BepiColombo

Olive Hawkins
October 20, 2018

BepiColombo will contain two orbiters, a propulsion unit, and a strong Sun shield to protect it from solar radiation.

BepiColombo aims to study the geophysics, atmosphere, and magnetosphere of Mercury as well as to understand the history of the inner solar system.

BepiColombo is a seven-year, dual spacecraft mission to Mercury, the nearest planet to the sun, led by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

The mission is primarily composed of two orbital craft, one each developed by ESA and JAXA.

The Mercury Planetary Orbiter will take a close look at Mercury's surface and composition while the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter will analyze its magnetosphere.

Meanwhile, the Japanese space agency Jaxa's Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter will focus on the planet's unusual magnetic field. "I believe they will achieve a very successful mission with their joint science measurements".

To be successful, however, BepiColombo must weather some extreme conditions.

While the MPO is equipped with a high-resolution scientific camera, this can only be operated after separating from the MTM upon arrival at Mercury in late 2025 because, like several of the 11 instrument suites, it is located on the side of the spacecraft fixed to the MTM during the cruise phase.

NASA's Mariner 10 was the first spacecraft to make the trip, flying past the planet three times in 1974 and 1975 and collecting the first close-up photos and other data at altitudes as low as 200 miles. NASA's Mariner 10 made three brief fly-bys in the 1970s, and the United States space agency's Messenger orbiter circled the planet between March 2011 and April 2015, when it ran out of fuel and crashed onto Mercury's surface.

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"He is known for explaining Mercury's peculiar characteristic of rotating about its own axis three times in every two orbits of the Sun".

The carrier spacecraft will use a combination of electric propulsion - which has undergone steering tests on the ground - along with multiple gravity-assists to complete the 7.2 year journey to the Solar System's mysterious innermost planet.

BepiColombo carries enough propellant to potentially be extended for an additional year, resulting in two Earth years of observation around Mercury - or 8.2 Mercurian years. It also has the highest orbital eccentricity of any planet and virtually no axial tilt.

That means that some places on Mercury don't see sunlight for 2 Mercury years, some are in perpetual "high noon" for weeks at a time, and others occasionally see the Sun reverse direction just after rising or just before setting.

Scientists hope the €1.5 billion mission will unravel some of Mercury's mysteries, such as the reason for its oversized iron core, its spectacular volcanic vents, and hints of water ice in shadowy parts of the scorching hot planet. Many of these features were unexpected discoveries from Mariner 10 or MESSENGER.

The first European mission is heading to the planet Mercury, the smallest and least explored planet in the inner Solar System.

Traveling in a controlled manner toward the Sun requires more energy than traveling away.

The joined spacecraft will also be making a series of flybys - one of Earth, two of Venus and six of Mercury.

BepiColumbo's ion thrusters will be firing for 4.5 years, more than half the journey time.

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