Europe's first space mission to Mercury is set for lift-off

Cesar Mills
October 24, 2018

The spacecraft will be launched onboard an Ariane 5 rocket, the heaviest launcher in the European Space Agency's Ariane rocket family.

BepiColombo's journey from launch to orbit will take 7 years.

Arianespace is ready to conduct the opening part of the BepiColombo mission with the launch of the spacecraft on a flight to study Mercury.

Once on station, the spacecraft will have to endure blistering 660-degree temperatures at Mercury's average distance of 37 million miles from the sun. It then swings by Venus twice, before making six flybys around Mercury between October 2021 and January 2025 before finally arriving in December that year.

An artist's impression of the European Space Agency's Mercury Planetary Orbiter, top, and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency's Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter, bottom, in orbit around 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.

When it arrives, BepiColombo will release two probes "Bepi" and "Mio" which will independently investigate the surface and magnetic field of Mercury.

With the journey totalling some 8.5 billion kilometres - the equivalent of travelling from the Earth to Neptune and back again - Bepi will actually travel 38 times the maximum distance between the Earth and Mercury.

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The countdown is underway for Europe's first ever mission to Mercury, with a British-built spacecraft set to be launched to the planet on Saturday. JAXA's Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter, equipped with five instruments, will study the planet's magnetosphere and its interactions with the sun. It is the first European mission to Mercury, the smallest and least explored planet in the inner Solar System, and the first to send two spacecraft to make complementary measurements of the planet and its dynamic environment at the same time. Data collected from 16 scientific instruments will provide insights into the geological and chemical composition of the planet, along with its structure, the characteristics of its magnetic field and how it interacts with the solar wind.

It is possible to directly reach Mercury in a matter of months, but the speed picked up by a spacecraft falling into the Sun's deep gravity would make it very hard to stop at the planet, the BBC report said.

Now Colombo's namesake is heading to the planet he helped us all get to know a little better.

BepiColombo will be just the third mission to visit Mercury.

The spacecraft actually has two orbiters, one from each space agency.

Simulations have been carried out to ensure the spacecraft can endure the extreme solar heating it will experience during the orbit.

It's estimated the costs borne by the European Space Agency and the Japanese space agency amount to about €1.65bn.

Mercury is the closest planet to the sun, but not the hottest. It was he who proposed the NASA trajectory that allowed Mariner 10 to fly by the planet. 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.

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