Ion-powered probe heads off to explore Mercury
A BRITISH-BUILT spacecraft fitted with Star Trek-style “impulse engines” is on its way to Mercury, the planet closest to the sun.
BepiColombo was blasted into space from the European space port at Kourou, French Guiana on top of an Ariane 5, the European Space Agency’s rocket.
Now begins a complex journey for the spacecraft that will take seven years and cross five billion miles (8.5 kilometres) of space.
In 2025 it will place two probes, one European, the other Japanese, in (ESA’s) most powerful orbit around Mercury, the least explored world in the solar system.
Scientists hope the £1.4b mission will unravel some of Mercury’s many mysteries, such as the reason for its oversized iron core, its spectacular volcanic vents, and tantalising hints of water ice in shadowy parts of the scorching hot planet.
The answers they get will shed new light on the origins and evolution of the solar system.
A key feature of BepiColombo is that it is the first interplanetary mission to employ advanced electric ion propulsion technology.
Four Star Trek-style “impulse engines”, will emit beams of electrically charged, or “ionised”, xenon gas.
Protective measures for the 350C temperatures include a heat shield, novel ceramic and titanium insulation and ammonia-filled “heat pipes”.