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

Mindy Sparks
October 20, 2018

It's in its first stage of a seven-year five billion mile journey to the closest planet to the Sun.

The BepiColombo spacecraft is due to be launched from the European space port at Kourou in French Guiana, at around 2.45am tomorrow morning.

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.

An Ariane 5 rocket launches the European-Japanese BepiColombo mission to Mercury from Europe's Spaceport at the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana on October 19, 2018.

The Mercury Transfer Module (MTM), carrying the orbiters, was built in Stevenage in the United Kingdom by the Defence and Space division of aerospace company Airbus.

Mercury, which is only slightly larger than Earth's moon, has a massive iron core about which little is known.

The spacecraft "will let us learn more about how the Solar System began, where we all came from, and how, on our own planet, you and I came to be". Mariner 10 also was the first interplanetary spacecraft to utilize gravitational assist flybys, a procedure that quickly become commonplace. In the process, scientists hope to understand more about how the planet formed and evolved so close to the sun, which may unlock insights about other stars and planets.

At top speed after launch, the spacecraft will be moving at 60km/s. But the lion's share of the needed energy will come from planetary flybys, using the gravity of Earth, Venus and Mercury to help shape the trajectory and put the brakes on, slowing the BepiColombo spacecraft enough to achieve orbit around Mercury. When ESA and the Japanese space agency, JAXA, announced their launch plans for this fall, they indicated that the launch window for this mission would last until November 29.

Protective measures include a heat shield, novel ceramic and titanium insulation, ammonia-filled "heat pipes" and in the case of the Japanese orbiter, spinning. It will study the internal structure, the magnetic field and the surface composition.

The PS1.4 billion ($A2.6 billion) mission will send two orbiters, one European and the other Japanese, to circle the planet while mapping and probing its surface and enveloping magnetic field. Mercury is the least explored of the four rocky inner planets, having received visits only from NASA missions Mariner 10, from 1974 to 1975, and Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging (MESSENGER), from 2008 to 2015.

It was named in honor of Italian mathematician and engineer Giuseppe "Bepi" Colombo.

"Beyond completing the challenging journey, this mission will return a huge bounty of science", said Jan Wörner, ESA Director General, in a statement.

"It is fulfilling this quest for information, and at the end of the day we don't know what we will find".

Designated VA245 in Arianespace's launcher family numbering system, this will be the 23rd major scientific mission performed by the company to date.

"We are doing science, we are doing technology, we are doing global co-operation, and we are doing something for society".

"We really need to understand Mercury better", said David Rothery, professor of planetary geosciences at the UK Open University.

"Competition is a driver for sure, but co-operation is an enabler".

Other reports by Iphone Fresh

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