Published: Sat, October 20, 2018
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BepiColombo spacecraft heads to Mercury

BepiColombo spacecraft heads to Mercury

Bepicolombo, a collaboration between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAX), is due to lift off from European Space Agency's (ESA) base in Kourou, French Guiana, in the early hours of tomorrow morning.

The mission is named after the Italian mathematician and engineer Giuseppe Colombo, who derived orbital trajectories to Mercury in the 1970s, and it is expected to last at least one year.

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.

The other half of BepiColombo's science mission will be conducted by the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter, provided by JAXA and nicknamed Mio.

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

This image obtained from NASA shows the Goethe Basin in Mercury's North Pole.

The answers they get will shed new light on the origins and evolution of the solar system.

A suite of 11 instruments on the MPO will map the surface of Mercury and probe its chemical composition for up to two years. -How does such a small planet maintain an intrinsic magnetic field, and how does it interact with the solar wind?

Asked if ESA was competing with NASA, he said: "There is no competition, at least for me". "So much about it seems wrong for a planet that close to the Sun, so maybe it originated further out".

Mercury's atmosphere is so thin that scientists have another name for it: an exosphere.

BepiColombo will be just the third mission to visit Mercury. For more than three decades, scientists have thought volcanoes may have helped craft Mercury's smooth northern plains but they have learned much more since NASA's MESSENGER probe - which stands for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging began orbiting the planet.

Soon, the joint European and Japanese BepiColombo mission will head there to take an even closer look.

"This wider array of instruments will enable us to not only make new discoveries, but also review Messenger's data", said Dominique Delcourt, a member of the team running instruments on the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter. "By combining observations from both orbiters, we will also be in a position to perform what you might call stereoscopic measurements, something that was previously impossible".

Flying a mission so close to the sun is tricky for a few reasons. Obviously, it's going to be very hot, so BepiColombo is loaded with state-of-the-art high-temperature coatings, insulation, a radiator for the Mercury Planetary Orbiter, a special spinning technique for the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter and a sunshield for the cruise phase when it can't spin, all to avoid overheating.

After launch, BepiColmbo must constantly brake, otherwise it will fly straight past the planet!

The European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said the unmanned BepiColombo spacecraft successfully separated and was sent into orbit from French Guiana as planned to begin a seven-year journey to Mercury. Pacific Time on Friday (10:45 p.m. local time).

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