Published: Wed, October 24, 2018
Sci-tech | By Patricia Wade

BepiColombo spacecraft set for mission to Mercury

BepiColombo spacecraft set for mission to Mercury

It's one of the most challenging space flight missions ever: The Bepicolombo Spacecraft has launched to explore the solar system's smallest planet, Mercury.

Perched inside a protective nose cone atop the Ariane 5, ESA's Mercury Planetary Orbiter and JAXA's Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter were poised for blastoff from the Guiana Space Center near Kourou, French Guiana, at 9:45 p.m. EDT (GMT-4; 10:45 p.m. local time).

Bepicolombo has a long journey ahead.

It's in its first stage of a seven-year five billion mile journey to the closest planet to the Sun.

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.

The module will use the gravity wells of the Earth, Venus and Mercury to slingshot itself through the solar system. JAXA's Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter, nicknamed Mio, will study the planet's magnetic field and Mercury's atmosphere.

A suite of 11 instruments on the MPO will map the surface of Mercury and probe its chemical composition for up to two years.

Two satellites developed in Europe and Japan are on their way to the Sun's closest planet Mercury. The scientists hope to gather data on the surface and internal structure of the planet and to examine its geological evolution. The approach to mercury will take more than seven years - until 2025 BepiColombo will reach " the innermost of the inner planets.

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Key elements of ESAs Mercury Planet Orbiter were also assembled by Airbus in the UK.

While BepiColombo's main science camera is enshrouded for the trip to Mercury, the craft is equipped with three low-resolution monitoring cameras to provide additional visual confirmation that arrays and antennas have deployed correctly-images of each will be received by ESOC over the course of the weekend.

It's estimated the costs borne by the European Space Agency and the Japanese space agency amount to about €1.65bn.

During the buildup to tonight's launch, ESA Director General Jan Wörner said the appeal of Mercury and the BepiColombo mission isn't strictly scientific. Getting the right data could help scientists figure out why Mercury has these attributes, which could help us understand how our solar system formed.

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. Temperatures at Mercury range from extremely hot, up to 450°C, to extremely cold, down to -180°C.

"After launch, and having escaped the "gravity well" of Earth, BepiColombo has to constantly brake against the gravitational pull of the sun".

"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. All those close encounters are carefully created to slow down BepiColombo's speed enough to put it into a stable orbit around Mercury in 2025.

NASA's MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) spacecraft ended its mission in 2015 with a dramatic, but planned, event - crashing into the surface of the planet that it had been studying for over four years.

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