Wednesday, 21 November, 2018

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

Europe, Japan send spacecraft on 7-year journey to Mercury Europe, Japan ready spacecraft for 7-year journey to Mercury
Elijah Vega | 20 October, 2018, 12:24

BepiColombo, a $1.8 billion joint mission between the European and Japanese space agencies, will have to fire xenon gas constantly from two of four specially designed engines in order to permanently brake against the sun's enormous gravitational pull.

The European Space Agency and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency say the BepiColombo spacecraft successfully separated and was sent into orbit from French Guiana early Saturday to begin a seven-year journey to Mercury.

The BepiColombo spacecraft will have to follow an elliptical path that involves a fly-by of Earth, two of Venus and six of Mercury itself so it can slow down before arriving at its destination in December 2025.

Now, scientists have to wait seven long years before the two spacecraft that make up BepiColombo reach Mercury and separate to begin observations of the tiny, unusual planet in December 2025.

The MPO satellite's orbit will have a low point of about 300 miles and a high point of some 930 miles.

"Mercury is three times closer to the sun and therefore the radiation and the heat we're getting from Mercury is 10 times higher", said Johannes Benkhoff, the project scientist.

"To cope with this, the spacecraft's external items, such as the antennas, solar arrays, Sun sensors, and multilayer insulation, have temperature-resistant outer layers and protective coatings, which were individually qualified to prove their capability", ESA said in a statement. "That was a very big challenge".

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And crucially, the spacecraft is fitted with four T6 ion thrusters, fuelled by the inert gas xenon, which were designed and built right here in the United Kingdom by QinetiQ at its base in Farnborough. 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. While extremely successful, scientists still have major unanswered questions.

ESA's Mercury Planetary Orbiter carries 11 instruments, including cameras, spectrometers, a radiometer, laser altimeter, magnetometer and others will focus on the planet's surface and internal composition. It is created to map out the planet's magnetic field and its interactions with the sun.

That means that some places on Mercury don't see sunlight for 2 Mercury years, some are in perpetual "high noon" for weeks at a time, and others occasionally see the Sun reverse direction just after rising or just before setting.

Among the puzzles is the giant iron core that makes up 60% of the planet. -Is the planet tectonically active? The mission also hopes to study the solar wind, Mercury's inner structure, and how Mercury interacts with the area around the sun. -What produces a thin "exosphere" around the planet?

"Studying Mercury is crucial to better understand the formation of our solar system, how Earth formed and evolved and where we are coming from", said Benkhoff.

Together, the probes are called BepiColombo, after a famous Italian scientist. "Let us go together to Mercury. We would like to understand that".

The mission, which Spaceflight Now has reported cost a total of nearly $2 billion, will last for a year, with a possible one-year extension.

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