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BepiColombo blasts off to investigate Mercury’s mysteries

on 20 October 2018

The ESA-JAXA BepiColombo mission to Mercury blasted off on an Ariane 5 from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou at 01:45:28 GMT (04:45:28 local time in Romania), on 20 October on its exciting mission to study the mysteries of the Solar System’s innermost planet.

Signals from the spacecraft, received at ESA’s control centre in Darmstadt, Germany, via the New Norcia ground tracking station at 02:21 GMT (05:21 local time in Romania) confirmed that the launch was successful.

BepiColombo is a joint endeavour between ESA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, JAXA. It is the first European mission to Mercury, the smallest and least explored planet in the inner Solar System, and the first to send two spacecraft to make complementary measurements of the planet and its dynamic environment at the same time.

“Beyond completing the challenging journey, this mission will return a huge bounty of science. It is thanks to the international collaboration and the decades of efforts and expertise of everyone involved in the design and building of this incredible machine, that we are now on our way to investigating planet Mercury’s mysteries,” says Jan Wörner, ESA Director General.

“Congratulations on the successful launch of Ariane 5 carrying BepiColombo, ESA-JAXA joint Mercury exploration mission,” says Hiroshi Yamakawa, JAXA President.

BepiColombo comprises two science orbiters: ESA’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) and JAXA’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO, or ‘Mio’). The ESA-built Mercury Transfer Module (MTM) will carry the orbiters to Mercury using a combination of solar electric propulsion and gravity assist flybys, with one flyby of Earth, two at Venus, and six at Mercury, before entering orbit at Mercury in late 2025.

“One of the biggest challenges is the Sun’s enormous gravity, which makes it difficult to place a spacecraft into a stable orbit around Mercury,” says Andrea Accomazzo, ESA Flight Director for BepiColombo.

Other challenges include the extreme temperature environment the spacecraft will endure, which will range from -180ºC to over 450ºC – hotter than a pizza oven.

Once placed on orbit around Mercury, the two orbiters will make measurements that will reveal the internal structure of the planet, the nature of the surface and the evolution of geological features – including ice in the planet’s shadowed craters – and the interaction between the planet and the solar wind.

Image credit: 2018 ESA-CNES-Arianespace