Mer­cury probe un­veiled

The Guardian Weekly - - International news - Han­nah Devlin

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.

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