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Thousands flock to see ESA's BepiColombo mission to Mercury

Paul Sutherland, News Editor
09 October 2012, 12:10

Sen— The European Space Agency (ESA) showed off its next major planetary mission to the public on October 7 - a spacecraft that will reveal new secrets about the innermost world in the Solar System, Mercury.

BepiColombo is a joint mission with Japan's space agency JAXA and is due to launch in 2015 atop a giant Ariane 5 rocket to put two separate probes into orbit around Mercury when it arrives in January 2022.

The probes are currently in the clean room of ESA's European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) at Noordwijk in the Netherlands. It was a highlight for around 9,000 visitors on Sunday, including Sen writer Paul Sutherland, when it was thrown open for one day only during international Space Week.

BepiColombo, named after Italian mathematician and engineer Professor Giuseppe Colombo, has undergone vital tests this year at the Dutch centre.

In August it was given shock treatment to simulate the violent effects and vibrations it will feel during launch and also when it separates from its Ariane 5 launch vehicle. It is also being tested to prove that it can withstand the harsh vacuum of space, and searing temperatures reaching 450°C that the probes will experience so close to the Sun.

The two probes are called the Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) and the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO). Both will fly in polar orbits with MPO taking 2.3 hours to circle Mercury and MMO 9.3 hours. This survey mission is nominally set to last one year.

Author at ESTEC

Writer Paul Sutherland at ESTEC, October 7. Photo: David Rowlandson

Planetary scientists hope BepiColombo will tell them more about heavily cratered Mercury itself as well as the formation of our Solar System. They want to answer such questions as why Mercury is much denser than other terrestrial planets and the Moon, whether it has a liquid core, whether the planet is geologically active and why it has a magnetic field when Venus, Mars and the Moon do not.

Johannes Benkhoff, BepiColombo Project Scientist for ESA, said: "Mercury is a planet of extremes. It experiences temperatures during the day that are like being in a pizza oven on Earth. It is really hot there, but with temperatures of -175C during the night."

BepiColombo is the first mission to be sent by either Europe or Japan to Mercury. Only two spacecraft have previously visited the planet - NASA's Mariner 10 in 1974–5, which sent back the first close-up images of the planet, and NASA's Messenger spacecraft, which performed three flybys in 2008 and 2009 before going into orbit in March 2011.

Another highlight of the Open Day at ESTEC was a talk, attended by hundreds, by André Kuipers who is the Netherlands' only astronaut to fly twice in space. He returned from his latest mission aboard the International Space Station in July.

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ESA video explaining the aims of the mission

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