Mission to Mercury: Blast-off for UK-built spacecraft BepiColombo

Image via ESA

Europe's first mission to Mercury, BepiColombo, in cooperation with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), blasted off on an Ariane 5 from Europe's spaceport in Kourou, in French Guiana, at 01:45:28 GMT on October 20.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has built one spacecraft, ESA has built the other.

It was named after Italian mathematician and engineer Giuseppe "Bepi" Colombo, who was known for his work related to Mercury.

The mission has been delayed by about five years, although that is not uncommon for major flagship missions.

An Ariane 5, ESA's most powerful rocket, will blast BepiColombo onto an "escape trajectory" that will free it from the shackles of Earth's gravity immediately.

ESA's Mercury Planetary Orbiter carries 11 instruments, including cameras, spectrometers, a radiometer, laser altimeter, magnetometer and others will focus on the planet's surface and internal composition.

Those probes will roam Mercury for a year before sending their findings back to Earth.

The key to their plan is the BepiColombo, a spacecraft launched on Saturday.

It's a fascinating world, says mission scientist Dr Suzie Imber from Leicester University. During that time, the spacecraft will make one flyby of Earth, two of Venus, and six of Mercury before finally reaching its destination. As intended, rushed to the stages of the Ariane 5 minutes after the Start in the Atlantic ocean.

A seven-year, eight-million-kilometer voyage expected to shed light on the mysteries of Mercury, the solar system's least-understood planet, is almost ready for takeoff.

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.

"BepiColombo will build on the discoveries and questions raised by NASA's Messenger mission to provide the best understanding of Mercury and Solar System evolution to date, which in turn will be essential for understanding how planets orbiting close to their stars in exoplanet systems form and evolve, too".

The latest mission by the Japan-Europe team, named BepiColombo after Giuseppe "Bepi" Colombo, a mathematician who deducted that the Mariner 10 spacecraft could do multiple fly-bys of the planet, is meant to reveal the mysterious history of Mercury's formation and its internal structure. Nasa's Mariner 10 flew past the planet three times in 1974-75, and the American space agency's Messenger probe orbited Mercury from 2011 to 2015, taking photos of the surface. Researchers are also hoping to learn more about the formation of the solar system from the data gathered by the BepiColombo mission. The plunge into the inner solar system will require seven planetary flybys to counteract the sun's enormous gravity and slow the spacecraft down enough to slip into orbit around hellish Mercury.

The MTM's solar arrays are now folded for launch, resulting in the presented image, but after their deployment the camera will have a clearer view. A maximum of two of the four xenon-propelled ion thrusters will be employed at any one time during the long journey; these will be used on more than 700 days in total, up to four months of which without interruption.

After mission control establishes a data link with the spacecraft, teams must still wait about an hour to deploy the spacecraft's solar arrays, and longer still to deploy its antennas. Once they reach Mercury, the orbiters will separate and pursue their own orbits. It also is the 121st Airbus-produced spacecraft lofted by Arianespace, which has a backlog of 22 additional satellites to orbit for this manufacturer on future flights.

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