Published: Sat, October 20, 2018
Research | By Jody Lindsey

Europe, Japan send spacecraft on 7-year journey to Mercury

Europe, Japan send spacecraft on 7-year journey to Mercury

Engineers closed the fairing over BepiColombo in preparation for the mission's launch on October 19 (Oct. 20 GMT).

The BepiColombo space mission will take off from a spaceport in French Guiana, on the northeast coast of South America at 12:45pm Australian Eastern Daylight Time.

BepiColombo, a $1.8 billion joint mission between the European and Japanese space agencies, will have to fire xenon gas constantly from two of four specially designed engines in order to permanently brake against the sun's enormous gravitational pull.

BepiColombo was named after the late Giuseppe "Bepi" Colombo, an Italian scientist and engineer who played a leading role in the 1974 Mariner 10 mission. During that time, the two spacecraft will investigate a range of questions about Mercury. That orbiter carries instruments that are primarily dedicated to the study of Mercury's magnetic field.

It will then immediately begin a complex journey that will take seven years.

This interplanetary mission comes hot on the heels of Ariane 5's 100th flight, placing two telecommunications satellites into orbit in the process - which are the bread and butter missions for this launch vehicle. This is really an impressive scientific mission.

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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.

An worldwide 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.

The 22 cm-diameter T6 thruster was designed for ESA by QinetiQ in the United Kingdom, whose expertise in electric propulsion stretches back to the 1960s. Japan-based NEC Corp. led an industrial team in building JAXA's spacecraft. More than 30 years later, NASA's Messenger did the same, before settling into orbit around Mercury in 2011.

A suite of 11 instruments on the MPO will map the surface of Mercury and probe its chemical composition for up to two years. Researchers are also hoping to learn more about the formation of the solar system from the data gathered by the BepiColombo mission. These colours are not what Mercury would look like to the human eye, but the colours enhance the chemical and physical differences between the rocks that make up Mercury's surface. On the MPO, the wide radiator means the spacecraft can efficiently remove heat from its subsystems, as well as reflect heat and fly over the planet at lower altitudes than ever achieved before. Later, the monitoring cameras will be switched on. The image was one of the first sent back to Earth by the MESSENGER spacecraft.

Compared to Mars, Venus, and Saturn, Mercury has barely been explored. Once it's there the BepiColombo scientists are hoping to solve many of Mercury's mysteries.

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

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