‘Flying into pizza oven’: European & Japanese joint spacecraft set for journey to Mercury

‘Flying into pizza oven’: European & Japanese joint spacecraft set for journey to Mercury
The BepiColombo mission spacecraft has undergone a final test before being launched in autumn, which will mark the start of Europe’s first mission to the least explored planet in the Solar System. It will take seven years for the module to reach Mercury.

“ESA's [European Space Agency] Mercury spacecraft has passed its final test in launch configuration, the last time it will be stacked like this before being reassembled at the launch site next year,” the agency announced on Thursday, as the probe was first presented to the media at the Space Research and Technology Centre in the Netherlands.

Due to set off on October 5 of this year, the spacecraft will begin “one of the most challenging long-term planetary projects.”

BepiColombo’s journey through space will last seven years until it reaches Mercury in December 2025, after performing nine flybys around Earth, Venus, and Mercury.

The spacecraft’s transfer module will carry two orbiters, European and Japanese, which “will separate and move into their own orbits to make complementary measurements,” once it reaches its destination.

The probe will carry a batch of sophisticated equipment, including various spectrometers and two cameras which will take high-resolution images of Mercury.

“Mercury is the least explored of the rocky planets, but not because it is uninteresting,” the BBC cited the ESA’s director of science, Prof. Alvaro Giménez Cañete, as saying. “It’s because it’s difficult. It’s difficult to get there; it’s even more difficult to work there.” 

The probes will look closer at Mercury’s internal structure and surface, as well as magnetic field, which “will help revolutionise our understanding of the formation of our Solar System, and in the evolution of planets close to their parent stars.”

BepiColombo’s mission is said to gather data for a year, with a possible extension for one more.

Due to Mercury’s proximity to the Sun, temperatures on the planet’s surface can range from minus 170C (minus 275F) to 450C (840F), making it difficult for exploration from the Earth, as well as posing a challenge to Bepi’s visit.

“We are flying into a pizza oven which is why we had to test materials at a very high and different temperature rates. Sometimes with very unwanted results,” AFP quoted ESA BepiColombo project manager Ulrich Reininghaus as saying. 

In order to prepare Bepi for Mercury’s harsh conditions, it went through a series of tests, the latest of which mimicked the vibrations it will experience during the launch.

Before departing from ESA’s space center in French Guiana, the probe will undergo a final check for temperature extremes in a thermal-vacuum chamber. The final ‘qualification and acceptance review’ of the mission is slated for early March.

So far, only two spacecraft have travelled to Mercury – NASA’s Mariner 10 with three encounters in 1974-1975, and Messenger in 2008-2009.

The project carries the name of late Italian mathematician Giuseppe (Bepi) Colombo, who discovered that Mercury rotates around its axis three times for every two revolutions around the Sun and proposed the NASA trajectory that allowed Mariner 10 to fly by the planet.