Europe, Japan send spacecraft on 7-year journey to Mercury

Europe, Japan send spacecraft on 7-year journey to Mercury

BepiColombo, a $1.8 billion joint mission between the European and Japanese space agencies, will have to fire xenon gas constantly from two of four specially designed engines in order to permanently brake against the sun's enormous gravitational pull.

The team involved: BepiColombo, made up of two different probes created by teams from Japan and the European Union, will launch from French Guiana.

This colourful view of Mercury was produced by NASA's MESSENGER mission. Though current plans call for a single year of research, the spacecraft are created to operate in a research mode for two years, he said.

A direct trajectory to Mercury would give BepiColombo too much speed to not succumb to the sun's gravity.

The monitoring cameras will be used ad-hoc during the cruise phase, notably during the flybys of Earth, Venus and Mercury.

But that's still not enough to do the job. 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.

The European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) say the BepiColombo spacecraft successfully separated and was sent into orbit from French Guiana early Saturday to begin a seven-year journey to Mercury.

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"It's just the beginning of the trip, but it's already a great day for ESA", he said.

The BepiColombo spacecraft will have to follow an elliptical path that involves a fly-by of Earth, two of Venus and six of Mercury itself so it can slow down sufficiently before arriving at its destination in December 2025. We don't want that.

One of the biggest challenges for mission planners was ensuring the spacecraft could withstand searing temperatures of more than 350C so close to the sun.

"Mercury is a planet of extremes, and getting there requires some equally extreme techniques, navigation solutions and operations expertise", Paolo Ferri, head of Mission Operations at ESOC, said in a statement. 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 first spacecraft to visit Mercury was NASA's Mariner 10 that flew past the planet in the mid-1970s.

The spacecraft is fitted with futurist ion plasma engines, designed and built in the United Kingdom, which emit beams of electrically charged xenon gas.

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. While extremely successful, scientists still have major unanswered questions. 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.

JAXA's Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter is equipped with five instruments, including a magnetometer, ion spectrometer, electron energy analyzer, plasma detectors and a camera.