ESA's Mercury mission swings into action
With the signing of the prime contract on 18 January, Europe’s first mission to Mercury, BepiColombo, has officially entered its industrial development phase, Astrium, a subsidiary of the
European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS), will be in charge of designing and building the Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) and the Mercury Transfer Module for the mission that is due
to launch in August 2013.
BepiColombo, which is set to make the most detailed study of Mercury ever, is a joint mission of the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). Both
agencies will contribute a spacecraft: ESA’s MPO will carry instruments to study the surface and internal composition of the planet, while the instruments on JAXA’s Mercury Magnetospheric
Orbiter (MMO) will analyse Mercury’s magnetosphere.
‘The two spacecraft will address scientific questions such as the origin and evolution of a planet close to its parent star, the status of the planet’s interior and of its magnetic field, as
well as Einstein’s theory of general relativity,’ says Johannes Benkhoff, ESA project scientist for BepiColombo.
‘Astrium will have to address several technical challenges,’ Jan van Casteren, ESA’s project manager for the mission, adds. ‘They mostly derive from the difficulty of operating a spacecraft in
the harsh environment of a planet so close to the Sun, where the radiation is about ten times more intense than in Earth’s proximity.’
Beside the intense radiation, the Sun’s gravitational pull will pose an additional problem, as the spacecrafts will require great energy to brake against it when reaching the planet and
entering orbit after a six-year journey towards the inner solar system.
‘Mercury is the planet closest to the Sun, making it hard to get to and so it is a technical challenge by anyone’s measure,’ Professor David Southwood, director of science at ESA, emphasises.
‘However, Mercury has also regularly confounded planetary scientists with its exceptional properties and that makes it a grand scientific challenge.’
The European financial contribution to the mission will amount to ?665 million, including the launch as well as the operation costs until 2020.
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