BepiColombo, the first Mercury mission in 14 years, launches tonight

Federico Mansilla
Octubre 20, 2018

Sky's science correspondent Thomas Moore has this report looking at its epic five billion mile journey.

The rocket launch is scheduled to take place at 2.45am United Kingdom time (1.45am UTC) from French Guiana.

The spacecraft will take seven years to reach the planet closest to the sun. These colours are not what Mercury would look like to the human eye, but the colours enhance the chemical and physical differences between the rocks that make up Mercury's surface. It is the only solar system planet that has a spin-orbit resonance: It spins on its axis three times for every two orbits around the Sun.

BepiColombo will follow up on the oddities that previous observations have turned up - including the iron core that accounts for about 60 percent of Mercury's mass and 85 percent of its radius, and the water ice that lies within permanently shadowed craters.

"If the presence of ice is confirmed, it means that some of those water samples date back almost to the origin of the solar system", Doressoundiram said.

Its four T6 engines, supplied by United Kingdom defence tech company QinetiQ, produce thrust using electrostatic forces to eject beams of positively charged, or "ionised", xenon gas.

A complex series of fly-bys past the Earth, Venus, and Mercury will also help to reduce BepiColombo's velocity by 7km/s. On the MPO, the wide radiator means the spacecraft can efficiently remove heat from its subsystems, as well as reflect heat and fly over the planet at lower altitudes than ever achieved before.

BepiColombo's mission scientists hope that studying each of these properties in more detail will provide a deeper understanding of the history of the inner solar system and how planets close to their stars evolve.

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Protective measures include a heat shield, novel ceramic and titanium insulation, ammonia-filled "heat pipes" and in the case of the Japanese orbiter, spinning.

When the probe arrives at Mercury, two orbiters will go their separate ways. The JAXA module will concentrate on the planet's magnetic field and its interaction with the Sun, the ESA module will focus on the planet itself.

The transfer module carrying the two satellites is equipped with ion thrusters and more traditional liquid-fueled rocket engines.

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.

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.

"Launching BepiColombo is a huge milestone for ESA and JAXA, and there will be many great successes to come", says Jan Wörner, ESA director general.

"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.

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