European-Japanese Space Mission Takes Off To Explore Mysteries Of Mercury

The ESA

A seven-year, eight-million-kilometer voyage expected to shed light on the mysteries of Mercury, the solar system's least-understood planet, is almost ready for takeoff.

A joint interplanetary mission of European Space Agency and (ESA) Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to Mercury, BepiColombo, blasted off on an Ariane 5 launch vehicle from the European spaceport in Kourou at 1.45am (GMT) on Saturday. All those close encounters are carefully created to slow down BepiColombo's speed enough to put it into a stable orbit around Mercury in 2025.

Flying a mission so close to the sun is tricky for a few reasons.

But there will also be the sun's enormous gravity to deal with, and ion thrusters will be used to constantly push back against the pull of our star. We don't want that.

The spacecraft is fitted with futurist ion plasma engines, designed and built in the United Kingdom, which emit beams of electrically charged xenon gas. The science mission builds on research from Mercury's only two science missions: NASA's Mariner 10, which performed three fly-bys in 1974 and 1975, and NASA's Messenger, which orbited from 2011 to 2015 before crashing into the rocky planet's surface.

Once on station, the spacecraft will have to endure blistering 660-degree temperatures at Mercury's average distance of 37 million miles from the sun.

After arriving at Mercury, the modules will separate and from their respective orbits the science orbiters will make complementary measurements of Mercury's interior, surface, exosphere and magnetosphere, following up on numerous open questions raised by NASA's Messenger mission.

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To be successful, however, BepiColombo must weather some extreme conditions. Together the orbiters will make measurements that will reveal the internal structure of the planet, the nature of the surface and the evolution of geological features - including ice in the planet's shadowed craters - and the interaction between the planet and the solar wind.

-Mercury has a higher overall density than any other terrestrial world. Why?

While MPO will go into an approximately 400 x 1500 km mapping orbit around Mercury, MMO will enter a highly elliptical orbit to study the planet's enigmatically strong magnetic field. -Iron is presumably the major constituent of Mercury, but it is not seen in spectroscopic analysis. Why? -What produces a thin "exosphere" around the planet?

BepiColombo, he said, will help scientists "understand the nature of the planet itself".

"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. "Mercury stands apart and we don't know why". In addition to its solar-electric propulsion system, BepiColombo will control its inward spiral to the Sun by borrowing gravitational energy during a flyby of Earth, two of Venus, and six of Mercury.

Once in orbit, the BepiColombo orbiters are expected to collect data for one year with a possible one-year mission extension.

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