Europe, Japan ready spacecraft for 7-year journey to Mercury

Image via ESA

The European Space Agency's Mercury Planet Orbiter (MPO) and Japanese space agency Jaxa's Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO) will study Mercury for up to two years.

The name BepiColombo is for Italian mathematician and engineer Giuseppe (Bepi) Colombo (1920-84), known for explaining Mercury's peculiar characteristic of rotating about its own axis three times in every two orbits of the sun.

The BepiColombo spacecraft will have to follow an elliptical path that involves a fly-by of Earth, two of Venus and six of Mercury itself so it can slow down sufficiently before arriving at its destination in December 2025.

Mercury is an odd terrestrial planet in many ways.

This image obtained from NASA shows the Goethe Basin in Mercury's North Pole.

They also hope get more information on its surface, the composition of its exosphere - a thin, atmosphere-like layer that separates the planet from outer space - and the structure of its magnetosphere - the region around a planet dominated by its magnetic field.

A look at the BepiColombo mission schedule.

A third Mercury-bound module will deliver orbiters on a seven-year-long cruise to Mercury using a mix of gravity assists and solar propulsion.

"We really need to understand Mercury better", said David Rothery, professor of planetary geosciences at the UK Open University.


The problem arises because Mercury is so small and so close to the sun. "A collision with the proto-Earth or proto-Venus could be what robbed it of so much of its original rock".

Together, the instruments on BepiColombo will also create a high-resolution global map of Mercury's surface at many wavelengths. "It is thanks to the global collaboration and the decades of efforts and expertise of everyone involved in the design and building of this incredible machine, that we are now on our way to investigating planet Mercury's mysteries", an ESA statement quoted Worner as saying.

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.

The Mercury mission launch was even the green light on October 17 after a final review of the Ariane 5 rocket and its payload.

The new spacecraft will be carrying a different suite of instruments that should allow BepiColombo to confirm and build on the data collected by Messenger.

The Mercury Transfer Module (MTM), carrying the orbiters, was built in Stevenage in the United Kingdom by the Defence and Space division of aerospace company Airbus. The thruster module and the sunshield will be discarded, and the two science orbiters will begin work.

After launch, BepiColmbo must constantly brake, otherwise it will fly straight past the planet!

ESA member states nearly cancelled BepiColombo after the mission, which began in 2000, grew too large to fit in a Soyuz rocket, requiring a more expensive Ariane 5 to continue.

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