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

An Ariane 5 lifts off from its launchpad in Kourou at the European Space Center in French Guiana on Oct. 19 2018.
AFP  Getty Images

An Ariane 5 lifts off from its launchpad in Kourou at the European Space Center in French Guiana on Oct. 19 2018. JODY AMIET AFP Getty Images

A mission to the planet Mercury got off to a flashy start with tonight's launch of an Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket, but there's a long way to go before the double-barreled BepiColombo probe gets to its destination.

Then finally, in December 2025, BepiColombo will split into its two components, the Mercury Planetary Orbiter built by the European Space Agency and the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter built by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

A complex series of fly-bys past Earth, Venus and Mercury will further reduce the spacecraft's velocity and prevent it being caught by the sun's enormous gravity.

BepiColombo comprises of two spacecraft: the Mercury Planetary Orbiter and the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter.

The MPO satellite's orbit will have a low point of about 300 miles and a high point of some 930 miles.

Getting to Mercury is not easy!

"Mercury is extremely hot and it's an extremely hard place to get to because of the gravity of the sun", Justin Byrne, head of science at Airbus, which led the project to build the spacecraft, told the UK's Press Association. "That was a very big challenge". Both will go into different orbits around the planet. Mariner 10 also was the first interplanetary spacecraft to utilize gravitational assist flybys, a procedure that quickly become commonplace.

To be successful, however, BepiColombo must weather some extreme conditions. Mercury is the least explored of the four rocky inner planets, having received visits only from NASA missions Mariner 10, from 1974 to 1975, and Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging (MESSENGER), from 2008 to 2015.

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The ESA-developed Bepi will operate in Mercury's inner orbit, and JAXA's Mio will be in the outer orbit to gather data that would reveal the internal structure of the planet, its surface and geological evolution.

JAXA's Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter is equipped with five instruments, including a magnetometer, ion spectrometer, electron energy analyzer, plasma detectors and a camera. The JAXA module will concentrate on the planet's magnetic field and its interaction with the Sun, the ESA module will focus on the planet itself.

That means that some places on Mercury don't see sunlight for 2 Mercury years, some are in perpetual "high noon" for weeks at a time, and others occasionally see the Sun reverse direction just after rising or just before setting.

The mission will also look for tectonic activity, and seek to understand why spectroscopic observations show no iron even if it is thought to be one of the planet's major component elements. -Is the planet tectonically active?

It's not exactly a quick trip to the closest planet to the sun. -Do permanently shadowed craters near Mercury's poles hold reservoirs of ice or sulphur? -What produces a thin "exosphere" around the planet?

Together, the probes are called BepiColombo, after a famous Italian scientist.

"Studying Mercury is crucial to better understand the formation of our solar system, how Earth formed and evolved and where we are coming from", said Benkhoff. "Mercury has a magnetic field, which is like Earth's, a dynamo field".

Once in orbit, the BepiColombo orbiters are expected to collect data for one year with a possible one-year mission extension.

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