A spacecraft with a mission to explore the planet Mercury has been launched from French Guiana in a combined effort by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The aim of the mission is to study Mercury’s inner core and perhaps even to discover information about the formation of our solar system.
As the planet closest to the sun, Mercury has been little explored, with only two spacecraft ever visiting it before. The Mariner 10 probe passed by the planet in 1974 and again in 1975, and the MESSENGER robotic spacecraft orbited the planet between 2011 and 2015. These NASA missions succeed in capturing data and images from Mercury, but now Japanese and European scientists hope to gain more information about the least explored inner planet.
Due to its proximity to the sun and the fact that the planet spins very slowly, temperatures on Mercury are extremely variable, ranging from 427 °C (801 °F) to −173 °C (−279 °F). In addition, the planet is bombarded by solar rays leading to high levels of radiation on the surface. This makes collecting data from the planet challenging, although it is known that Mercury has a huge iron core. The current mission aims to learn more about this core through the use of probes.
The BepiColombo spacecraft that was launched is named after the Italian scientist Giuseppe “Bepi” Colombo, and was built in a partnership between the ESA and JAXA. It has an unusual design: it is a “stacked aircraft” consisting of a transport module and two orbiters. One orbiter was built by ESA, and the other by JAXA. The orbiter built by ESA has a special coating of ceramics and insulation designed by the aircraft company Airbus, which should protect it from the high temperatures and harsh conditions on the planet.
The trip to Mercury will take seven years, so we won’t be seeing results from the probes any time soon. The craft will follow an elliptical path and its journey will include one fly-by of Earth, two of Venus, and a total of six of Mercury to allow the craft to slow before the probes are released. If all goes well, the craft should arrive at Mercury in December 2025.