Graphic of BepiColombo spacecraft

UK-built spaceship prepares to set sail for Mercury

Image credit: Esa/PA Wire

The BepiColombo spacecraft – built in the UK and carrying European and Japanese orbiters – is being prepared for the launch that will mark the start of its five billion mile journey to the planet Mercury.

The spacecraft will launch from the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana, at 2.45am UK time on Saturday 20 October. It will be carried into space by the heavy-lift Ariane 5, the European Space Agency's (ESA's) most powerful rocket.

The sophisticated spacecraft has been fitted with electric plasma engines, which emit beams of charged xenon gas in order to accelerate and decelerate the spacecraft, allowing it to retain control as it experiences a much greater gravitational pull from the sun. This type of propulsion technology has been speculated about as a likely candidate for driving long-distance space travel, although this mission is the first interplanetary mission to use these plasma engines.

BepiColombo will take seven years to travel as far as Mercury. It will reach top speeds of 60km/s, and will undergo fly-bys past Earth, Venus and Mercury in order to sufficiently decrease its velocity by the time it is ready to release its orbiters.

“Mercury is a planet of extremes, and getting there requires some equally extreme techniques, navigation solutions and operations expertise,” commented Paolo Ferri, head of mission at the European Space Operations Centre.

Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun, and also the smallest true planet in the solar system. Only two known spacecraft have visited the planet (both operated by Nasa). Mariner 10 flew by the planet in 1974 and 1975, while Messenger orbited it more than 4000 times before crashing into its surface in 2015.

Researchers hope that the £1.4bn mission could help shine light on some mysteries associated with the planet, such as its extreme volcanic vents, its oversized iron core and the possibility of ice in some shaded regions of its surface.

BepiColombo will deploy two orbiters– protected with extensive heatproofing to withstand temperatures above 350°C – which will circle the planet for a further two years. The ESA’s Mercury Planet Orbiter will survey the planet’s surface, while the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Mercury Magnetosphere Orbiter will probe the planet’s internal structure and magnetic field.

“UK scientists, engineers and technicians have played a vital role in developing BepiColombo and the incredibly sophisticated set of scientific instruments on board,” said Dr Graham Turnock, CEO of the UK Space Agency. “The international collaboration involved in this mission shows how our leading role in the [ESA] is ensuring the UK thrives in the new space age.”

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