Historic mission to Mercury blasts off

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The spacecraft is expected to take seven years to get to the planet closest to the sun, and it won't be easy.

"Congratulations on the successful launch of Ariane 5 carrying BepiColombo, ESA-JAXA joint Mercury exploration mission", says Hiroshi Yamakawa, JAXA President.

Newly developed electrical ion thrusters will help nudge the spacecraft, which was named after Italian scientist Giuseppe "Bepi" Colombo, into the right orbit.

The mission has been delayed by about five years, although that is not uncommon for major flagship missions.

Spacecraft BepiColombo, built in the U.K.by Airbus Space and Defence, will transport the satellites - Europe's Mercury Planetary Orbiter and Japan's Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter - into Mercury's orbit. The mission also hopes to study the solar wind, Mercury's inner structure, and how Mercury interacts with the area around the sun. One year on Mercury is only 88 Earth days long, but a day-night cycle on the smallest planet lasts more than twice as long.

The opening element of that journey involves a ride on the Ariane 5 rocket.

Manufacturers for BepiColomobo had to build unique technologies, such as British company QinetiQ's new, highly efficient electric propulsion system to slow the spacecraft, and German manufacturer Azur Space's solar cells capable of generating power while enduring higher than normal temperatures. As intended, rushed to the stages of the Ariane 5 minutes after the Start in the Atlantic ocean.

The 22 cm-diameter T6 thruster was designed for ESA by QinetiQ in the United Kingdom, whose expertise in electric propulsion stretches back to the 1960s.

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NASA's Messenger spacecraft mapped the north polar topography of Mercury. JAXA's Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter, nicknamed Mio, will study the planet's magnetic field and Mercury's atmosphere. "This global effort, with Airbus teams from five countries, is the natural effect of humanity's desire to discover more about this little known planet and the origins of our solar system".

Liftoff of the two craft - collectively called BepiColombo - is scheduled for 9:45 p.m. ET on Friday.

The historic first photo was snapped by one of the three black-and-white monitoring cameras aboard the MTM.

Once at Mercury, the two orbiters will separate and go their own ways.

The MTM's solar arrays are now folded for launch, resulting in the presented image, but after their deployment the camera will have a clearer view.

"Mercury is extremely hot and it's an extremely hard place to get to because of the gravity of the sun", Justin Byrne, head of science at Airbus, which led the project to build the spacecraft, told the UK's Press Association. And for that, we need special insulation of our spacecraft, special materials for the antenna, for the solar panels. Artist's impression of BepiColombo during its April 2020 Earth flyby. The mission will fly by Earth, Venus, and Mercury rather than take a direct path. Because of its its proximity to the sun, it's difficult to observe with ground telescopes and hard to reach via spacecraft. This will afford some unique data collection opportunities at Venus, for example.

Image copyright ESAImage caption The stack is unpacked at Mercury to enable complementary observations What are the big mysteries?

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