Rocket science: Europe's set to blast off to Mercury

Pablo Tucker
October 24, 2018

BERLIN - Final preparations were underway Friday for the launch of a joint mission by European and Japanese space agencies to send twin probes to Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun.

Engineers worked throughout the day in ESOC's Main Control Room simulating BepiColombo's launch, maintaining data and voice contact with their counterparts at Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, and at the ground stations that will support BepiColombo's departure.

This diagram shows the spacecraft that comprise the BepiColombo Mercury mission, as well as the location of the monitoring camera that took the mission's first photo - the selfie seen at left, which was captured on October 20, 2018, the day after the mission launched.

One of the mission's greatest challenges will be the sun's enormous gravity, which makes it hard to place a spacecraft into a stable orbit around Mercury.

A complex series of fly-bys past Earth, Venus and Mercury will further reduce the spacecraft's velocity and prevent it being caught by the sun's enormous gravity.

An global mission with a amusing name is set to blast off from South America on Friday night, bound for a little-explored spot in the inner solar system.

When it arrives, BepiColombo will release two probes "Bepi" and "Mio" which will independently investigate the surface and magnetic field of Mercury. More than 30 years later, NASA launched Messenger, the first spacecraft to successfully orbit and map Mercury's surface. The space probe will then swing into orbit around Mercury before each orbiter enters its own orbit and begins the actual scientific exploration of the planet.

Among the themes to be studies are Mercury's interior structure, the characterises of its internal field, the structure of its exosphere and the dynamics of the planet magnetosphere.

Not much is known about the solar system's smallest and least-explored planet, Mercury. Though current plans call for a single year of research, the spacecraft are created to operate in a research mode for two years, he said.

"The nearer you get to the sun, the less dense the planets are - except Mercury".

Enlarge / Some of the main science themes for the BepiColombo mission.

"Launching BepiColombo is a huge milestone for ESA and JAXA, and there will be many great successes to come", said Jan Worner, ESA Director General.

Scientist Joe Zender explains, "If we want to understand our Earth and how life can [begin] on Earth and maybe on other planets we have to understand our solar system".

A key feature of BepiColombo is that it is the first interplanetary mission to employ advanced electric ion propulsion technology.

After launch, BepiColmbo must constantly brake, otherwise it will fly straight past the planet! A third component, the Mercury Transfer Module (MTM), serves to support this duo during the long cruise to the solar system's innermost planet.

NASA's Mariner 10 spacecraft was the first to flyby and capture close images of Mercury in 1974.

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.

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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