Published: Tue, October 23, 2018
Research | By Jody Lindsey

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

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

As the nearest planet to the Sun, exploring Mercury is key to acquiring knowledge of how terrestrial planets originate and evolve, as well as to understand how conditions supporting life arose in the solar system, and possibly elsewhere.

This diagram shows the spacecraft that comprise the BepiColombo Mercury mission, as well as the location of the monitoring camera that took the mission's first photo - the selfie seen at left, which was captured on October 20, 2018, the day after the mission launched.

While it may seem counterintuitive, it will require more energy to reach Mercury - a change in velocity of 11.5 miles per second - than it did for NASA's New Horizon's probe to reach distant Pluto.

A few months before arriving at Mercury, the transfer module will be jettisoned, leaving the two science orbiters - still connected to each other - to be captured by Mercury's gravity.

The spacecraft BepiColombo will take off today for a seven-year journey to the planet closest to our sun.

But there will also be the sun's enormous gravity to deal with, and ion thrusters will be used to constantly push back against the pull of our star.

Compared to Mars, Venus, and Saturn, Mercury has barely been explored.

But that's still not enough to do the job.

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When Bepicolombo finally arrives in the year 2025, it will place two probes around the planet. It is due to launch from Jourour, French Guiana and is a £1.4 billion (Dh 6.7 billion) joint venture between the ESA and Japanese space agency Jaxa. And the planet's orbit, which changes its orientation quicker than once predicted, offered an early proof of Einstein's theory of general relativity.

It's expensive. Engineers have had a torrid time developing the technologies to keep Bepi safe so close to the Sun. It might even have water and carbon hidden away from the beginning of the Solar System.

"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. "It's also got huge cliffs, many kilometres tall".

The actual deployment of the solar arrays and antenna will be confirmed by telemetry data sent by the spacecraft after launch. "That was a very big challenge". The carrier rocket Ariane 5 takes two to mercury Orbiter. The Americans have already been there, briefly with the Mariner 10 probe in the 1970s, and with the Messenger orbiter earlier this decade. Mariner 10 also was the first interplanetary spacecraft to utilize gravitational assist flybys, a procedure that quickly become commonplace. Several questions still evade scientists, but with the help of BepiColombo, those questions are soon to have answers.

BepiColombo weighs more than four tonnes and consists of two spacecrafts: The Mercury Planetary Orbiter and the Magnetospheric Orbiter. The MMO, designed by the European Space Agency (ESA), will be investigating the magnetospheric interactions between the planet and the solar wind that is ejected from the Sun.

-Mercury has a higher overall density than any other terrestrial world. Why?

It may be that the solar particles are channelled by the planet's magnetic field, creating a king of "surface aurora". -Iron is presumably the major constituent of Mercury, but it is not seen in spectroscopic analysis. Why? Only 30% of the planet is rocks. "Mercury has a magnetic field, which is like Earth's, a dynamo field". "Mercury stands apart and we don't know why".

BepiColombo comprises two orbiters.

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