January 20, 2019

BepiColombo spacecraft heads to Mercury

24 October 2018, 11:59 | Ross Houston

BepiColombo spacecraft set for mission to Mercury

Spacewatch: mission to Mercury braced for blast-off

The European-Japanese BepiColombo mission captured a selfie showing an extended solar array and an insulation-wrapped sun sensor on Saturday (Oct. 20), a day after lifting off from Kourou, French Guiana.

The Ariane 5 vehicle on the launch pad in Kourou, French Guiana, with its BepiColombo payload.

During its journey to Mercury, BepiColombo will make several braking manoeuvres to adjust its orbit, allowing it to make a slow approach towards the planet.

The spacecraft will take seven years to reach the planet closest to the sun.

The spacecraft is specially created to withstand the sun's high temperatures, as well as its gravitational pull. During that time, the spacecraft will make one flyby of Earth, two of Venus, and six of Mercury before finally reaching its destination.

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

A powerful European Ariane 5 rocket was primed for blastoff Friday evening to send a pair of satellites on a seven-year voyage to Mercury.

After arriving at Mercury, the modules will separate and from their respective orbits the science orbiters will make complementary measurements of Mercury's interior, surface, exosphere and magnetosphere, following up on numerous open questions raised by NASA's Messenger mission. JAXA's Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter, equipped with five instruments, will study the planet's magnetosphere and its interactions with the sun.

A combination of spacecraft will be launched together, with the Mercury Composite Spacecraft (MCS) consisting of two orbiters: MMO, MPO; as well as two additional elements: MTM, the Magnetospheric Orbiter Sunshield and Interface Structure (MOSIF).

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"Mercury is extremely hot and it's an extremely hard place to get to because of the gravity of the sun", Justin Byrne, head of science at Airbus, which led the project to build the spacecraft, told the UK's Press Association.

BepiColombo is a joint endeavour between ESA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, JAXA.

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.

"To understand how Earth was formed, we need to understand how all rocky planets formed", including Venus and Mars, he told AFP.

"The challenge is to get to Mercury and be captured into its orbit and to do that you have to brake, brake, brake for years and years".

From liftoff until the spacecraft is functioning stably in its planned orbit, BepiColombo will be in what engineers call the "Launch and Early Orbit Phase" (LEOP)-the period in which the spacecraft is gradually switched on and systems are checked out to ensure the craft is healthy.

But there will also be the sun's enormous gravity to deal with, and ion thrusters will be used to constantly push back against the pull of our star.

NASA's Mariner 10 took the first high-quality images of Mercury during its three flypasts in 1974 and 1975.

Only two NASA spacecraft, Mariner 10 and Messenger, have visited Mercury before, with Messenger intentionally crashing into the planet in 2015.

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