Mercury probe unveiled
The BepiColombo spacecraft, which will become the third probe to visit Mercury, has been unveiled ahead of a mission that will tackle some of the deepest mysteries of our solar system.
The spacecraft, scheduled to launch in October 2018, will investigate the existence of water ice at Mercury’s poles and its volcanoes, and attempt to explain the surprising discovery that the solar system’s smallest planet appears to be shrinking.
Mercury remains the most elusive of the solar system’s inner planets, partly due to the challenges involved in building a spacecraft robust enough to withstand the “pizza oven” conditions. “Mercury is the least explored of the rocky planets, but not because it is uninteresting,” said Alvaro Giménez Cañete, director of science at the European Space Agency (ESA). “It’s because it’s difficult – difficult to get there, even more difficult to work there.”
BepiColombo is a joint venture between the ESA and the Japanese space agency, Jaxa, and comprises a pair of spacecrafts (one per agency) that will be bolted together in a 6.4-metre-high stack before its launch from Kourou in French Guiana. The two craft – Europe’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) and Japan’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO) – will separate again on arrival at Mercury, more than seven years later.
The length of the journey is not due to distance, but because the spacecraft needs to be going slowly enough to enter a stable orbit.