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Trending Science: Europe’s first mission to Mercury lifts off to explore its mysteries

The European and Japanese space agencies have launched a rocket to shed light on our solar system’s least-understood planet.
Trending Science: Europe’s first mission to Mercury lifts off to explore its mysteries
On 20 October, the British-built spacecraft known as BepiColombo and its 2 satellites blasted off on a powerful Ariane 5 rocket from a European space port in French Guiana to begin a 7-year voyage to the sun’s closest planet. A joint venture between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), BepiColombo is travelling about 8.5 billion km to reach Mercury and help solve some of the mysteries that have baffled scientists for centuries. BepiColombo got its name from renowned Italian scientist Giuseppe ‘Bepi’ Colombo who was instrumental in devising Mariner 10’s Mercury flybys back in the 1970s.

Mercury’s origin is the question the scientific community wants answered most. “Mercury doesn’t really fit with our theories for how the Solar System formed, and we can’t understand our planet fully unless we’re able to explain Mercury as well,” Prof. Dave Rothery, a BepiColombo scientist from the United Kingdom’s Open University, told the ‘BBC’.

BepiColombo deputy project scientist Joe Zender echoed the same sentiments. He said in the British newspaper ‘The Guardian’: “If we want to understand our Earth and how life can [begin] on Earth and maybe on other planets, we have to understand our solar system.”

Mission to Mercury like no other before it

Only two previous NASA missions have ever reached Mercury. Most of our knowledge comes from the Messenger mission that sent spacecraft there between 2011 and 2015. With double the instrumentation on board, BepiColombo intends to build on these missions by getting closer for longer.

BepiColombo is taking quite a dizzying interplanetary route to get there: 9 planetary flybys at a top speed of 60 km/s. It’s flying past the Earth once, Venus twice and Mercury six times. When the craft arrives in late 2025, it will place two probes in orbit around Mercury. ESA and JAXA each built one. They’ll spend at least a year feeding data about the planet’s composition, geophysics, atmosphere, magnetosphere and geological history back to Earth. When the orbiters finish doing their job, they’ll be crashed into the planet’s surface.

Mercury is difficult to explore because it’s just 58 million km from the sun. For the mission to succeed, it must overcome the very intense heat. A heat shield and titanium insulation will protect BepiColombo from getting toasted. In addition, to permanently brake against the sun’s enormous gravitational pull, it will have to fire xenon gas continuously from two of its four specially designed engines.

The venture doesn’t come cheap. ESA and JAXA have spent an estimated EUR 1.6 billion. But the return could be priceless.

“Launching BepiColombo is a huge milestone for ESA and JAXA, and there will be many great successes to come,” said ESA Director General Jan Wörner in an official press release. “Beyond completing the challenging journey, this mission will return a huge bounty of science. It is thanks to the international collaboration and the decades of efforts and expertise of everyone involved in the design and building of this incredible machine, that we are now on our way to investigating planet Mercury’s mysteries.”

Source: Based on media reports

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