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

Spacewatch: mission to Mercury braced for blast-off

Spacewatch: mission to Mercury braced for blast-off

JAXA's Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO) hosts a magnetometer, a spectral imager, and plasma physics instruments to study the origin, strength, and extent of the planet's magnetic field and exosphere.

The first planet will soon receive its third visitor from Earth.

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 $1.9 billion BepiColombo project is only the second, after NASA's MESSENGER mission, to attempt putting a spacecraft into orbit around the innermost planet, one of the most technically challenging missions ever attempted by the European Space Agency and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA.

BepiColombo consists of two orbiters: Japan's Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO) and ESA's Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO), both of which will be carried together by the Mercury Transport Module (MTM).

Enlarge / Some of the main science themes for the BepiColombo mission. Once it's there the BepiColombo scientists are hoping to solve many of Mercury's mysteries. This map, combined with its other investigations, seeks to complement the data collected by previous visits to Mercury.

NASA's Messenger spacecraft, launched in 2004, reached orbit around Mercury in 2011 and spent four years studying the planet's surface and space environment with a suite of sophisticated instruments.

They will tour Mercury for a year before feeding their findings back to earth.

Temperatures on Mercury - the closest planet to the Sun - range from 450 degrees celsius down to -180 degrees celsius and there are signs of past volcanic activity. It also has the highest orbital eccentricity of any planet and virtually no axial tilt.

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"Exploring Mercury is therefore fundamental to answering important astrophysical and philosophical questions such as 'Are Earth-like planets common in the Galaxy?'", the ESA writes. Many of these features were unexpected discoveries from Mariner 10 or MESSENGER.

A European-led mission to Mercury, the least explored planet in the inner Solar System, is to be launched early on Saturday morning.

Traveling in a controlled manner toward the Sun requires more energy than traveling away.

The trip inward doesn't actually begin until April 2020 when the BepiColombo spacecraft races past Earth, using the planet's gravity to bend the trajectory onto a course carrying the satellites toward Venus.

Before beginning its orbit of Mercury in 2025, the spacecraft will flyby Earth in 2020, flyby Venus in 2020 and 2021, and then perform six different flybys of Mercury before making it into orbit.

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.

The European Space Agency (ESA) first proposed a mission to explore Mercury in 1993.

The broadcast will begin at 9:15 p.m. EDT (0115 GMT, Oct. 20), with a half-hour of commentary leading up to launch.

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.

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