British-built spacecraft ready for blast-off on seven year mission to Mercury

Eloise Marshall
October 20, 2018

BERLIN - Final preparations were underway Friday for the launch of a joint mission by European and Japanese space agencies to send twin probes to Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun.

Key elements of ESAs Mercury Planet Orbiter were also assembled by Airbus in the UK.

Engineers closed the fairing over BepiColombo in preparation for the mission's launch on October 19 (Oct. 20 GMT).

It will begin the most comprehensive journey ever made to the closest planet to the sun, which has puzzled scientists for centuries.

"(Mercury is) the planet that helped us prove that relativity is real, the planet that is astonishingly hot on its sun-side and yet carries ice in craters at its North Pole", Bill Nye, CEO of the Planetary Society, said in a statement.

Its distance from Earth also makes it hard to reach - more energy is required to allow BepiColombo to "fall" toward the planet than is needed when sending missions to Pluto.

The mission is primarily composed of two orbital craft, one each developed by ESA and JAXA.

The launch window for BepiColombo opened on 5 October and closes on 29 November 2018 - a window created to ensure the trajectory and multiple planetary flybys and gravity assists needed to eventually insert BepiColombo into the orbit of Mercury can be achieved via planetary alignments of Earth, Venus, and Mercury. The mission also hopes to study the solar wind, Mercury's inner structure, and how Mercury interacts with the area around the sun. "To understand how Earth was formed, we need to understand how all rocky planets formed. A collision with the proto-Earth or proto-Venus could be what robbed it of so much of its original rock".

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Like many great spacecraft - here's looking at you, Hubble and Kepler - BepiColombo is named after a scientist. Some other mysterious features of the planet that BepiColombo could help us better understand include why it appears to have shrunk over time and how it generates its own magnetic field despite spinning very slowly on its axis.

An Ariane 5 rocket rises from its launch pad in Kourou, French Guiana, sending the BepiColombo probe on the first leg of its journey to Mercury.

NASA's Mariner 10 flew past the planet three times in 1974-75 and the American space agency's Messenger probe orbited Mercury from 2011 to 2015. Once at Mercury, its mission lifetime will be about 17 months.

The new spacecraft will be carrying a different suite of instruments that should allow BepiColombo to confirm and build on the data collected by Messenger.

That means that some places on Mercury don't see sunlight for 2 Mercury years, some are in perpetual "high noon" for weeks at a time, and others occasionally see the Sun reverse direction just after rising or just before setting.

"After launch, and having escaped the "gravity well" of Earth, BepiColombo has to constantly brake against the gravitational pull of the sun".

The rocket launch is scheduled to take place at 2.45am United Kingdom time (1.45am UTC) from French Guiana.

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