Tuesday, 13 November, 2018

Mission to Mercury: Blast-off for UK-built spacecraft BepiColombo

Spacewatch: mission to Mercury braced for blast-off BepiColombo spacecraft set for mission to Mercury
Frank Williams | 24 October, 2018, 12:02

The spacecraft is slated to launch October 19 at 9:45 p.m. ET from the French Guiana on the European workhorse rocket Ariane 5.

"We have sent the most complex stack of spacecraft that ever have been conceived into space, and to a very long journey to an environment which is truly out of the Earth; truly out of this world".

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

Another major challenge for mission planners was ensuring the spacecraft could withstand the searing temperatures of more than 350C so close to the sun.

The Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter, made by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, will study the region of space around the planet that is influenced by its magnetic field.

It is the fastest planet in the solar system, orbiting the sun in just 88 days - meaning that one Earth year is equivalent to approximately four Mercury years.

The project carries the name of 20th century Italian mathematician Giuseppe (Bepi) Colombo, who discovered that Mercury rotates around its axis three times for every two revolutions around the sun. More than 30 years later, NASA launched Messenger, the first spacecraft to successfully orbit and map Mercury's surface.

It's hoped their parallel observations can finally resolve some of the many puzzles about the hot, oddball planet. Japan's Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter will analyze the planet's mysterious magnetic field and how it interacts with solar winds.

"Following its departure from Earth, the spacecraft will travel nine billion km in seven years, completing nine planetary flybys at a top speed of 60 kilometres per second, all in order to reach the least explored planet of the inner Solar System".

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ESA member states nearly cancelled BepiColombo after the mission, which began in 2000, grew too large to fit in a Soyuz rocket, requiring a more expensive Ariane 5 to continue. A third component, the Mercury Transfer Module (MTM), serves to support this duo during the long cruise to the solar system's innermost planet. These colours are not what Mercury would look like to the human eye, but the colours enhance the chemical and physical differences between the rocks that make up Mercury's surface.

Airbus in the United Kingdom built large parts of the MPO and the mission's propulsion unit, called the Mercury Transfer Module (MTM).

"To understand how Earth was formed, we need to understand how all rocky planets formed", including Venus and Mars, he told AFP.

The European Space Agency (ESA) first proposed a mission to explore Mercury in 1993.

Even if BepiColombo only partially fulfills its objectives, the knowledge that researchers gained in designing and launching the spacecraft will be applied to future missions.

They will be used not to accelerate the craft but to act as a brake against the sun's enormous gravity.

Only two NASA spacecraft, Mariner 10 and Messenger, have visited Mercury before, with Messenger intentionally crashing into the planet in 2015.

Until 1985, an engineer figured out the path that a spacecraft should take to reach Mercury.

"Each of our thrusters operates at 125 millinewtons, and one way to visualise that is that it's the same as the weight of a two-pound coin", said QintiQ's Peter Randall.

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