Published: Wed, October 24, 2018
Science | By Michele Flores

European-Japanese spacecraft sets off to Mercury to investigate solar system

European-Japanese spacecraft sets off to Mercury to investigate solar system

An Ariane 5 rocket rises from its launch pad in Kourou, French Guiana, sending the BepiColombo probe on the first leg of its journey to Mercury.

An Ariane 5 lifts off from its launchpad in Kourou, at the European Space Center in French Guiana, on October 19, 2018.

It will take seven years to reach Mercury, the nearest planet to the sun. A big challenge is that the Sun's gravity is huge, which makes it tricky to put a spacecraft into Mercury's orbit. This route will take it on flybys of Earth, Venus twice, and Mercury six times before dropping into Mercury's orbit.

The European Space Agency says the 1.3 billion-euro ($1.5 billion) mission is one of the most challenging in its history.

Coming close on the heels of NASA's Parker Solar Probe that was launched in August, Bepi is aimed at finding more about Mercury that "doesn't really fit with our theories for how the Solar System formed", said Bepi scientist Professor Dave Rothery from the UK's Open University.

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 image was one of the first sent back to Earth by the MESSENGER spacecraft.

One craft, called the Mercury Planetary Orbiter, will carry 11 scientific instruments to the small planet; they're all focused on mapping Mercury and the space environment that surrounds it.

A British-built spacecraft has blasted off to begin a seven year, 8.5 billion kilometre journey to Mercury, the planet closest to the sun. Together the orbiters will make measurements that will reveal the internal structure of the planet, the nature of the surface and the evolution of geological features - including ice in the planet's shadowed craters - and the interaction between the planet and the solar wind.

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Thales Alenia Space Italy and Airbus's German division also played a crucial role in the development of the aircraft, ESA said.

"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.

However, the Sun's enormous gravity makes putting a spacecraft into orbit around Mercury quite hard. A third component, the Mercury Transfer Module (MTM), serves to support this duo during the long cruise to the solar system's innermost planet.

"The worldwide collaboration involved in this mission shows how our leading role in the European Space Agency is ensuring the UK thrives in the new space age, bringing real benefits to UK companies and scientists", said Dr Graham Turnock, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency.

Even if BepiColombo only partially fulfills its objectives, the knowledge that researchers gained in designing and launching the spacecraft will be applied to future missions.

JAXA's Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter is equipped with five instruments, including a magnetometer, ion spectrometer, electron energy analyzer, plasma detectors and a camera.

After launch, BepiColmbo must constantly brake, otherwise it will fly straight past the planet! It was he who proposed the NASA trajectory that allowed Mariner 10 to fly by the planet.

The last spacecraft to visit Mercury was NASA's Messenger probe, which ended its mission in 2015.

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