Mercury mission lifts off

A joint European-Japanese mission to learn more about the planet Mercury has taken flight, with two satellites successfully launched on their epic journey to the Solar System’s innermost planet.

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The BepiColombo mission liftoff took place at 01.45am GMT on 20 October, when a European Ariane 5 launcher blasted off from a spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

The launcher was carrying two satellites that are eventually due to settle into orbit around Mercury: one designed by the European Space Agency and the other by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. They are designed to study the planet’s internal structure, its surface and how it is affected by solar winds.

“Seeing our spacecraft blast off into space is a moment we have all been waiting for,” said Ulrich Reininghaus, ESA’s BepiColombo project manager. “We have overcome many hurdles over the years, and the teams are delighted to see BepiColombo now on the road to intriguing planet Mercury.”

Mercury’s proximity to the Sun meant that the craft had to be designed and built to endure temperatures ranging from -180ºC to over 450ºC. In order to orbit Mercury, they must first attain the right speed by carrying out one rotation around the Earth and two rotations around the planet Venus, eventually settling into their Mercury orbits in 2025.

“There is a long and exciting road ahead of us before BepiColombo starts collecting data for the science community,” said Günther Hasinger, ESA’s Director of Science. But he added: “Endeavours like the Rosetta [comet-exploration] mission and their ground-breaking discoveries even years after their completion have already shown us that complex science exploration missions are well worth the wait.”

The mission will build on previous missions to Mercury, including Nasa’s Messenger mission. The ESA’s satellite, called the Mercury Planetary Orbiter, has been designed to orbit closer to the planet than any previous mission, while its combination with JAXA’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter will provide additional benefits.

“A unique aspect of this mission is having two spacecraft monitoring the planet from two different locations at the same time: this is really key to understanding processes linked to the impact of the solar wind on Mercury’s surface and its magnetic environment,” said project scientist Johannes Benkhoff.

Words: Craig Nicholson
Image: ESA

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