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ESA, JAXA send spacecraft on 7-year mission to Mercury

In a first-of-its-kind mission, a UK-built spacecraft will set off for Mercury to determine whether the plant, which is the closest to the Sun, contains water. The European Space Agency's (ESA) BepiColombo mission will send two orbiters to explore the planet where the surface temperatures reach about 450 degrees Celsius.

Oct 22, 2018 20:34 IST
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In a first-of-its-kind mission, the European and Japanese space agencies launched the Bepi Colombo spacecraft carrying two probes into orbit on October 20, 2018 for a joint mission to Mercury, the planet closest to the sun.

The unmanned spacecraft successfully separated and was sent into orbit from French Guiana as planned to begin a seven-year journey to Mercury, arriving in 2025. The UK-built spacecraft has been launched to determine whether the plant, which is the closest to the Sun, contains water.

Significance

Through the mission, scientists hope to build on the insights gained by NASA's Messenger probe, which ended its mission in 2015 after a four-year orbit of Mercury.

Key Highlights

  ESA to send spacecraft to Mercury in a first-of-its-kind mission The spacecraft has been named after Italian scientist Giuseppe "Bepi" Colombo. During its 5.2 billion miles journey, the spacecraft will make a complex series of fly-bys, one of Earth, two of Venus and six of Mercury to help it slow down enough to avoid the huge gravitational pull of the Sun.

The spacecraft will arrive at its destination in December 2025.  When it arrives, it will release two probes - Bepi and Mio - that will independently investigate the surface and magnetic field of Mercury.

The ESA-developed Bepi will operate in Mercury's inner orbit, and JAXA's Mio will be in the outer orbit to gather data that would reveal the internal structure of the planet.

Mercury's extreme temperatures, the intense gravity pull of the sun and blistering solar radiation make for hellish conditions.

Hence, the probes are designed to cope with temperatures varying from 430 degrees Celsius (806 F) on the side facing the sun, and -180 degrees Celsius (-292 F) in Mercury's shadow.

Other Details

• Despite being the nearest to the Sun, the tilt of the planet signifies that some of its areas are permanently in shade and temperatures can fall to minus 180 degrees Celsius, allowing ice to form on the planet.

• Through the mission, the researchers also look to learn more about Mercury's magnetic field.

• While it was thought that the planet was solid all the way through, some of the previous missions discovered a magnetic field suggesting that it may have a molten interior.

Background

Only two spacecraft have been to Mercury until now. The first one was NASA’s ‘Mariner 10’, which flew past the planet in 1974 and 1975 and second was US space agency's ‘Messenger’, which orbited the planet between 2011 and 2015.

Though the spacecraft sent home a great deal of information, they also raised more questions.

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