Mercury probes will launch together in October

Joint mission seeks better understanding of the ways planets near their parent stars form and evolve.

The BepiColombo mission to Mercury, which consists of one orbiter being sent by the European Space Agency (ESA) and  another being sent by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), is scheduled to launch on an Ariane 5 rocket from the Kourou Spaceport in French Guiana on October 19.

At launch, the ESA’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter and JAXA’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter will be carried by a transfer module that will be positioned between them. A combination of solar and electric propulsion will power the three connected objects.

Bepi-Colombo will execute a total of nine gravity assist flybys of Earth, Venus, and Mercury to reach its destination and enter the desired orbit.

Three years after launch, the spacecraft will conduct their first scientific flybys of Mercury. Webcams on board the central transfer module will take the first, simple images of the planet before the probes’ main science cameras begin operations.

Both orbiters will be equipped with scientific instruments that will take measurements of Mercury’s surface environment, probe deeply into its interior, and study the planet’s interaction with the solar wind. Scientists hope data collected by the probes will shed light on the formation and evolution of a solar system’s innermost planet in close orbit around its parent star.

In May of this year, the three vehicles arrived at the Kourou Spaceport, where they are now undergoing deployment tests, being equipped with protective high-temperature blankets, being fitted with solar arrays, and having their nitrogen and xenon tanks checked, loaded, and pressurized.

Other preparations include planning for unexpected contingencies and computer simulations of the spacecraft’s operations. The latter are being conducted at ESA’s operations center (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany.

“We have had a great start to our launch campaign in Kourou, and are on track for launch in less than 90 days,” emphasized BepiColombo project manager Ulrich Reininghaus of ESA.

“We have an incredibly packed schedule, but it is great to see our spacecraft building up together for the final time.”

The launch window for the mission will remain open through November 29.


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