21, Dec 2018
Prelims level : Science & Technology – Space Technology Mains level :
- A European-Japanese spacecraft set off on a treacherous seven-year journey to Mercury to examine the solar system’s smallest and least-explored planet.
- The BepiColombo mission, only the third ever to visit Mercury, blasted off from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana aboard an Ariane 5.
- It is the Europe’s first mission to Mercury, built in cooperation with the Japanese space agency JAXA. Europe’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) and Japan’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO) have different roles. The BepiColombo mission includes two spacecraft, a planetary orbiter and a magnetospheric orbiter, which, according to the European Space Agency, will need to deal with temperatures above 350°C during their year-long mission around the closest planet to the sun.
- When it arrives, BepiColombo will release two probes Bepi and Mio that will independently investigate the surface and magnetic field of Mercury.
- Newly developed electrical ion thrusters will help nudge the spacecraft, which is named after Italian scientist Giuseppe ‘Bepi’ Colombo, into the right orbit.
- The MMO will make as its priority the study of the planet’s magnetic field. It will investigate the field’s behaviour and its interaction with the “solar wind”, the billowing mass of particles that stream away from the Sun. This wind interacts with Mercury’s super-tenuous atmosphere, whipping atoms into a tail that reaches far into space.
- Europe’s MPO will map the terrain, generate height profiles, sense the interior, and collect data on the surface structure and composition.
- It is the second recent cooperation between the Europeans and JAXA after the Japanese agency’s Hayabusa2 probe dropped a German-French rover on the asteroid Ryugu earlier this month.
- The Americans have already been there, briefly with the Mariner 10 probe in the 1970s, and with the Messenger orbiter earlier this decade.
- The latter provided remarkable new insights that included the amazing discoveries that water-ice is held inside some of baking Mercury’s shadowed craters, and that its crust contains a lot of graphite (pencil lead).
- Bepi will build on Messengers’ investigations. The new mission carries twice as much instrumentation and will get closer for longer, giving scientists much more detailed information.
- Beyond completing the challenging journey, this mission will return a huge bounty of science. Helps to understand how Earth was formed, how all rocky planets formed.
- BepiColombo mission is one of the most challenging in its history given Mercury’s extreme temperatures, the intense gravity pull of the sun and blistering solar radiation make for hellish conditions. The first spacecraft to visit Mercury was NASA’s Mariner 10 that flew past the planet in the mid-1970s. Mercury, which is only slightly larger than Earth’s moon, has a massive iron core about which little is known. Researchers are also hoping to learn more about the formation of the solar system from the data gathered by the BepiColombo mission.