Historic mission to Mercury blasts off

Christopher Davidson
October 23, 2018

Arianespace marked another mission accomplished for science tonight as its heavy-lift Ariane 5 successfully sent BepiColombo - Europe's historic first mission to Mercury, organized in cooperation with Japan - on its way toward the solar system's smallest and least-explored terrestrial planet.

"The worldwide collaboration involved in this mission shows how our leading role in the European Space Agency is ensuring the UK thrives in the new space age, bringing real benefits to UK companies and scientists", said Dr Graham Turnock, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency. It is created to map out the planet's magnetic field and its interactions with the sun. The mission also hopes to study the solar wind, Mercury's inner structure, and how Mercury interacts with the area around the sun.

The sides of the probes in direct sunlight will have to cope with temperatures over 400C.

The Mercury Planetary Orbiter will take a close look at Mercury's surface and composition while the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter will analyze its magnetosphere. This will allow the space probe to enter a solar orbit similar to that of the Earth at speeds of around 120,000 km/h. This slowing down of the spacecraft is needed, or it would be captured by the sun's strong gravitational pull and careen into our closest star.

The major United Kingdom instrument onboard the MPO is the Mercury Imaging X-Ray Spectrometer (MIXS).

NASA's MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) spacecraft ended its mission in 2015 with a dramatic, but planned, event - crashing into the surface of the planet that it had been studying for over four years.

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However, the Sun's enormous gravity makes putting a spacecraft into orbit around Mercury quite hard. This map, combined with its other investigations, seeks to complement the data collected by previous visits to Mercury.

This interplanetary mission comes hot on the heels of Ariane 5's 100th flight, placing two telecommunications satellites into orbit in the process - which are the bread and butter missions for this launch vehicle.

BepiColombo is scheduled to arrive at Mercury in December 2025 and begin its science mission in 2026. One of the orbiters, known as the Mercury Planetary Orbiter, will make a wide-spectrum survey of the planet using a suite of 11 instruments, including cameras, spectrometers, a radiometer and a laser altimeter.

Scientists will be eager to explore previously discovered evidence of water ice on the planet.

This image obtained from NASA shows the Goethe Basin in Mercury's North Pole. "This worldwide effort, with Airbus teams from five countries, is the natural effect of humanity's desire to discover more about this little known planet and the origins of our solar system".

Unsolved mysteries Joe Zender, ESA's BepiColombo deputy project scientist, told CNBC that Saturday's launch represented years of work. But Messenger observed large abundances of sulphur- and potassium-containing compounds at the surface, and these should have been burnt off in a giant impact. And those cliffs formed as Mercury shrank. As temperatures increase, expansion should be occurring in and on the planet's surface. While extremely successful, scientists still have major unanswered questions.

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