To Mercury! And hopefully not beyond …
European, Japanese mission set for take-off.
At some point during the 48 hours comprising Friday and Saturday, October 19 and 20, an Ariadne rocket will blast off from Kourou in French Guiana carrying two orbiters on a seven-year journey to Mercury.
The mission is called BepiColombo – named after a professor from Italy’s University of Padua – and is a joint venture between the European and Japanese space agencies, ESA and JAXA.
It will be only the third mission to head to Mercury, the planet closest to the sun and the only one apart from Earth to have its own magnetic field.
The pair of orbiters inside the Ariadne rocket together weigh about 100 kilograms. One has been designed to map the planet’s surface, and the other to measure its magnetic field.
During the seven years they will be in transit, the BepiColombo components will twice zip by Venus in order to steal a boost from that planet’s gravity.
In the final approach to the destination, it is critical that orbiters are captured by Mercury’s own, very weak, gravitational field. If they miss, they will continue past the planet, heading inexorably towards the sun and its surface temperatures of 5500 degrees Celsius.
If the mission is successful, the orbiters will spend two years doing serious and valuable survey work, finishing up in 2027.