A double decker spacecraft—which can carry TWO orbiters, one belonging to the Japanese Space Agency and another one from the European counterpart is set to explore one of the most mysterious planets in the solar system, on a mission that will launch in 2018. Scientists want to get as close as possible to the surface of the planet, which is blasted by EXTREME radiation levels around ten times higher than on the sun, and by temperatures that literally melt metal.
The Mission is set to launch on October 5, 2018, from Kourou in French Guinea and will arrive at Mercury, the closest planet in our solar system on December 5, 2025.
Mercury is considered as one of the most intriguing planets in our solar system, and very little is known about it. BepiColombo would be the European Space Agency’s FIRST mission to the closest planet in our solar system.
The ESA has said that BepiColombo aims to “follow up on many of the intriguing results of NASA‘s Messenger mission, probing deeper into Mercury’s mysteries than ever before.”
The mission’s main goal is to research the strange characteristics of Mercury’s internal structure and magnetic field generation, and specifically how it interacts with the Sun and the Solar Wind.
The entire mission cost around 1.3 billion Euros and involves around 33 companies from a total of twelve countries in Europe, as well as companies from the United States and Japan.
The spacecraft has an extremely unusual design carrying two orbiters, one from the ESA and one from JAXA, which will separate upon arrival in order to enter two different but complementary orbits around the closest planet to the sun.
According to the European Space Agency, “BepiColombo is Europe’s first mission to Mercury. It will set off in 2018 on a journey to the smallest and least explored terrestrial planet in our Solar System. When it arrives at Mercury in late 2025, it will endure temperatures in excess of 350 °C and gather data during its 1-year nominal mission, with a possible 1-year extension. The mission comprises two spacecraft: the Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) and the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO). BepiColombo is a joint mission between ESA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), executed under ESA leadership.”
Image Credit: Airbus
The mission has already been delayed several times in the past but mission specialists are confident that the launch will definitely take place in Octobre of 2018.
Alvaro Gimenez, ESA’s director of science told reporters at the agency’s center in the Dutch coastal town of Noordwij: Mercury is the ‘most peculiar of all rocky planets.’ And Mercury rightfully is the most mysterious of them all, having a surface governed by extreme temperatures that range from a drastically 450 to -180 degrees Celsius.
However, Mercury is also the ONLY planet in the solar system that has a magnetic field beside Earth. And while Earth’s magnetic field protects us from harmful solar radiation, Mercury’s magnetic field is so weak that it doesn’t provide much protection against solar radiation. The planet orbits the sun just 58 million kilometers away, meaning that it’s bombarded by radiation levels that would destroy life as we know it in an instant.
Mercury is also a planet that is difficult to study from Earth due to its proximity to the sun, as the brightness tends to impede the view.
Furthermore, due to the extreme gravity, the sun has on the planet, it’s very hard to place a spacecraft into stable orbit around the planet.
“We are flying into a pizza oven which is why we had to test materials at a very high and different temperature rates. Sometimes with very unwanted results,” said Ulrich Reininghaus, the ESA BepiColombo project manager.
Mercury has truly been a challenge for space agencies around the globe. So far, only two NASA missions have managed to visit the planet before—the Mariner 10 and the Messenger missions who studied the planet in the 1970’s and 2011 respectively.
The Mercury mission is Europe’s “most complicated ever,” said Gimenez.
“It’s difficult to get there, it’s difficult to work there.”
Mission scientists want to get as close as possible to the surface of the planet, which is blasted by EXTREME radiation levels around ten times higher than on the sun, and by temperatures that literally melt metal.
Both spacecraft are expected to study the planet between one to two years, but experts say the orbiters could last a bit longer before crashing into the surface of the planet.