Launching Tonight: A Mission to the Best Planet (Mercury)

Spacewatch: mission to Mercury braced for blast-off

BepiColombo spacecraft set for mission to Mercury

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 BepiColombo spacecraft is due to be launched from the European space port at Kourou in French Guiana, at around 2.45am tomorrow morning.

"There is a long and exciting road ahead of us before BepiColombo starts collecting data for the science community", says Günther Hasinger, ESA Director of Science.

One of the biggest challenges for mission planners was ensuring the spacecraft could withstand searing temperatures of more than 350C so close to the sun.

Before beginning its orbit of Mercury in 2025, the spacecraft will flyby Earth in 2020, flyby Venus in 2020 and 2021, and then perform six different flybys of Mercury before making it into orbit.

The European Space Agency's Mercury Planet Orbiter (MPO) and Japanese space agency Jaxa's Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO) will study Mercury for up to two years.

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

Only two previous missions, carried out by NASA, have ever reached the planet.

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Its creators are hoping those final orbits around Mercury will help solve some of the many questions about the perplexing planet.

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.

The carrier spacecraft will use a combination of electric propulsion - which has undergone steering tests on the ground - along with multiple gravity-assists to complete the 7.2 year journey to the Solar System's mysterious innermost planet. It will spend a year in orbit exploring the planet's magnetic field and atmosphere.

"Key elements of the spacecraft, such as its thrusters or its solar sails, must be activated as soon as possible after it has separated from the launcher, but before ground teams have fully taken over control".

Like the Parker Solar Probe now en route to the Sun, BepiColombo features newly developed insulation to protect itself from solar radiation.

"To understand how Earth was formed, we need to understand how all rocky planets formed", including Venus and Mars, he told AFP.

The mission is made up of four spacecraft, which are stacked together for launch.

Paolo Ferri, head of mission operations at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) said: "Mercury is a planet of extremes, and getting there requires some equally extreme techniques, navigation solutions and operations expertise". This maneuver allowed Mariner 10, the last spacecraft in the Mariner program, to conduct three flybys of Mercury's surface. NASA's MESSENGER orbiter (2011-2015) revealed many reasons why scientists are keen to learn more about it. 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. I suspect that after it begins to orbit Mercury, it will inherit the name of BepiColombo or maybe just Bepi.

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