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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 15 November 2018

Stage set for pioneering seven year mission to Mercury

The Mission came about after a joint European-Japanese effort

THe BepiColombo is to survey Mercury, the least known planet in the Solar System (ESA)
THe BepiColombo is to survey Mercury, the least known planet in the Solar System (ESA)

An ambitious European-led mission will depart on a fact-finding mission for Mercury, the least explored planet in the solar system in a trip expected to take seven years.

The BepiColombo launches Saturday to provide new insight into how the planet closest to the Sun formed and evolved as part of a project for the European Space Agency (ESA).

The ship will have to travel 9 billion kilometres and withstand extreme temperatures ranging from 450 to -180 degrees centigrade. It is due to launch from Jourour, French Guiana and is a £1.4 billion (Dh 6.7 billion) joint venture between the ESA and Japanese space agency Jaxa.

One major hazard is the intense gravitational pull of the sun. To prevent the spacecraft being dragged into a fiery annihilation, it will attempt to slow itself down via a number of complicated manoeuvres around Venus and Mercury.

Only two previous missions have studied Mercury – Nasa’s Mariner 10 probe in 1973 and Messenger in 2004. Giuseppe ‘Bepi’ Colombo played a hugely influential role in the development of Mariner 10. These missions appeared to show the planet has a molten core far larger than Earth's.

Among the themes to be studies are Mercury’s interior structure, the characterises of its internal field, the structure of its exosphere and the dynamics of the planet magnetosphere.

“We really need to understand Mercury better. So much about it seems wrong for a planet that close to the Sun, so maybe it originated further out. A collision with the proto-Earth or proto-Venus could be what robbed it of so much of its original rock,” said David Rothery, Professor of Planetary Geosciences at the Open University.

“As a volcanologist though, one aspect that really impresses me about Mercury is all the volcanic explosion vents. They are spectacular evidence of violent eruptions, powered by escaping gas that recurred for much of the past four billion years,” he added.

BepiColombo comprises two spacecraft in different orbits to aid scientists understanding of the little-known planet. In particular, dual observations are key to understanding solar-wind-driven magnetospheric processes, affording new science possibilities the ESA said.

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The UK space agency helped contributed to the mission via its scientific, electronic an engineering expertise and industry giant Airbus was involved in building the spacecraft. Some 40,000 people are employed in the UK’s rapidly developing growing space sector.

“The international collaboration involved in this mission shows how our leading role in the European Space Agency is ensuring the UK thrives in the new space age, bringing real benefits to UK companies and scientists,” said Dr Graham Turnock, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency.

Thales Alenia Space Italy and Airbus’s German division also played a crucial role in the development of the aircraft, ESA said.