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

20 Octobre, 2018, 16:53 | Auteur: Therese Cote

A seven-year, eight-million-kilometer voyage expected to shed light on the mysteries of Mercury, the solar system's least-understood planet, is almost ready for takeoff.

The European Space Agency has launched its first mission to Mercury from its space port in Kourou, French Guiana.

This interplanetary mission comes hot on the heels of Ariane 5's 100th flight, placing two telecommunications satellites into orbit in the process - which are the bread and butter missions for this launch vehicle.

A WEST Australian space station will play a key role in a mission to Mercury due to launch today.

It will begin the most comprehensive journey ever made to the closest planet to the sun, which has puzzled scientists for centuries.

This image obtained from NASA shows the Goethe Basin in Mercury's North Pole.

Its distance from Earth also makes it hard to reach - more energy is required to allow BepiColombo to "fall" toward the planet than is needed when sending missions to Pluto. The mission, named BepiColombo, is a joint mission of the ESA and Japan. -How does such a small planet maintain an intrinsic magnetic field, and how does it interact with the solar wind?

"To understand how Earth was formed, we need to understand how all rocky planets formed", including Venus and Mars, he told AFP. In addition to its solar-electric propulsion system, BepiColombo will control its inward spiral to the Sun by borrowing gravitational energy during a flyby of Earth, two of Venus, and six of Mercury.

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Scientists hope to shine a light on the planet's origin and evolution, its interior structure, and learn more about its internal magnetic field.

The spacecraft will take seven years to reach the planet closest to the sun.

"Mercury is a planet of extremes, and getting there requires some equally extreme techniques, navigation solutions and operations expertise", Paolo Ferri, head of Mission Operations at ESOC, said in a statement.

The new spacecraft will be carrying a different suite of instruments that should allow BepiColombo to confirm and build on the data collected by Messenger.

Its creators are hoping those final orbits around Mercury will help solve some of the many questions about the perplexing planet. "By combining observations from both orbiters, we will also be in a position to perform what you might call stereoscopic measurements, something that was previously impossible".

The other half of BepiColombo's science mission will be conducted by the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter, provided by JAXA and nicknamed Mio. "We have to constantly brake to ensure a controlled fall towards the Sun, with the ion thrusters providing the low thrust needed over long durations of the cruise phase".

ESA member states nearly cancelled BepiColombo after the mission, which began in 2000, grew too large to fit in a Soyuz rocket, requiring a more expensive Ariane 5 to continue. Pacific Time on Friday (10:45 p.m. local time).

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