Launch to Mercury: BepiColumbo
The BepiColombo mission to Mercury is scheduled to launch aboard an Ariane 5 from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana at 01:45 GMT on 20 October 2018.
BepiColombo is a joint endeavour between ESA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, JAXA. It is the first European mission to Mercury, the smallest and least explored planet in the inner Solar System, and the first to send two spacecraft to make complementary measurements of the planet’s dynamic environment at the same time.
It will build on the discoveries and questions raised by NASA’s Messenger mission, which orbited the planet between 2011 and 2015, to provide the best understanding of the Solar System’s innermost planet to date. BepiColombo will provide information about solar system evolution in general – not just about our own, but regarding how planets orbiting close to their stars in exoplanet systems form and evolve, too.
A big challenge for the mission is the Sun’s enormous gravity, which makes it difficult to place a spacecraft into a stable orbit around Mercury – even more energy is needed than when sending a mission to Pluto. After launch, and having escaped the ‘gravity well’ of Earth, BepiColombo must constantly brake against the gravitational pull of the Sun.
The high solar intensity experienced during the journey and later during operations at Mercury also demanded new technologies to be developed – such as high-temperature coatings and multi-layered insulation, a radiator for the MPO, and a novel spin-technique for Mio – to avoid overheating. During the cruise phase, however, Mio will not be spinning, so it is protected by a sunshield.