Japan, Europe launch space probes to survey Mercury

Mindy Sparks
October 23, 2018

The rocket launch is scheduled to take place at 2.45am United Kingdom time (1.45am UTC) from French Guiana. BepiColombo comprises two spacecraft, the Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) and the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO), each loaded with instruments that will measure the planet's magnetic field, its chemical makeup, how it feels the Sun's gravity, and more.

JAXA Senior Vice President Shizuo Yamamoto highlighted the excellent cooperation at the Spaceport launch site of Arianespace, ESA, the CNES French agency and the industrial teams that contributed to sending BepiColombo on its way to Mercury.

Signals from the spacecraft, received at ESA's control center in the German town of Darmstadt, via the New Norcia ground tracking station at 02:21 GMT, confirmed that the launch was successful, according to the ESA.

The launch was approved on Wednesday (Oct. 17) after a final review of the spacecraft and rocket, which rolled out in preparation for launch yesterday.

An Ariane 5 lifts off from its launchpad in Kourou, at the European Space Center in French Guiana, on October 19, 2018.

Mercury is 58 million kilometers from the sun, almost three times closer than Earth. The Earth-Mars transit typically only takes about six months. How much gravity are we talking about? "With BepiColombo, there will be two spacecraft instead of one, they will be in orbits with approximately comparable coverage of the northern and southern hemispheres, and the two probes collectively carry many more instruments than MESSENGER".

"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. To prevent the spacecraft being dragged into a fiery annihilation, it will attempt to slow itself down via a number of complicated manoeuvres around Venus and Mercury.

An ambitious European-led mission will depart on a fact-finding mission for Mercury, the least explored planet in the solar system in a trip expected to take seven years.

"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", he added. By the time it reaches its science orbit in 2026, the probe will have travelled nine billion kilometres and completed nine planetary fly-bys past Earth, Venus and Mercury.

This scenario would explain why Mercury's core accounts for a whopping 55 percent of its mass, compared to 30 percent for Earth.

I hope I've convinced you that BepiColombo is a mission worth getting excited about.

Following a seven-year voyage to reach Mercury's orbit, the spacecraft stack will separate. Researchers are also hoping to learn more about the formation of the solar system from the data gathered by the BepiColombo mission. More information on the orbiters and their scientific objectives can be found in the mission's press kit. European engineers plan to use knowledge gained from the operation of BepiColombo to develop a future mission to study the Sun.

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