Published: Sun, October 21, 2018
Research | By Raquel Erickson

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

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

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 European Space Agency's (ESA) first mission to Mercury blasts off with a trio of craft heading to the planet closest to the Sun.

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. (It spins on its axis three times for every two orbits around the sun). 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.

Mercury is the innermost planet to the Sun and is, unusually, mostly made of metal.

"(Mercury is) the planet that helped us prove that relativity is real, the planet that is astonishingly hot on its sun-side and yet carries ice in craters at its North Pole", Bill Nye, CEO of the Planetary Society, said in a statement. 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.

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.

Scientists hope to shine a light on the planet's origin and evolution, its interior structure, and learn more about its internal magnetic field. "To understand how Earth was formed, we need to understand how all rocky planets formed".

"We want to characterize the surface, what material is on the surface, we'd like to measure temperatures, we'd like to see the interaction with the solar wind, which is special on Mercury because it is so close to the sun", he said. "A collision with the proto-Earth or proto-Venus could be what robbed it of so much of its original rock". Moreover, some of the instruments created to study Mercury in a particular way can be used in a completely different way at Venus, which has a thick atmosphere compared with Mercury's exposed surface.

BepiColombo will be just the third mission to visit Mercury. More than 30 years later, NASA's Messenger did the same, before settling into orbit around Mercury in 2011.

Although it survived a cancellation vote in 2008, it was later pushed back twice, first to 2015 and then to 2018 in order to build the equipment and ensure the planets in the solar system were in the right position to facilitate its route to Mercury.

The two orbiters will also be able to operate some of their instruments during the cruise phase, affording unique opportunities to collect scientifically valuable data at Venus. One of the monitoring cameras is positioned on the MTM with a field of view looking up towards the Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO), which sits above.

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

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