Ion-pow­ered probe heads off to ex­plore Mer­cury

Wales On Sunday - - NEWS -

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”.

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