At what point is the mission of Bepicolombo, the third probe sent to explore Mercury

At what point is the mission of Bepicolombo, the third probe sent to explore Mercury

At what point is the mission of Bepicolombo

Bepicolombo is about to begin a series of six close passes that will lead the ESA / Jaxa probe to enter orbit around Mercury in 2025

(image: ESA / ATG medialab - NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Carnegie Institution of Washington He has already traveled three billion kilometers, almost a third of the journey that will lead him to enter the orbit of Mercury on December 5, 2025. While waiting for the event, there are just a few days left to another fundamental milestone in the long journey of Bepicolombo: on 2 October the spacecraft will make its first flyby around Mercury, a maneuver with which the slow deceleration necessary to enter the orbit of the planet and start the key phase of the mission will begin. Not that in the last three years the probe remained idle. Far from it: for the occasion we decided to retrace together the main stages of the last three years, the characteristics of the mission and its scientific objective.

The mission

Bepicolombo is a joint mission that sees the Japanese counterpart Jaxa alongside the European Space Agency (ESA). For both organizations this is the first visit to the innermost planet of our solar system, a goal that has been explored to date only by two NASA probes: the Mariner 10, which reached Mercury in 1973, and the Messenger, which carried out the his first flyby on January 14, 2008.

To do more, and better, than its predecessors, the Bepicolombo mission is composed of two orbiters: the Mercury Planetary Orbiter, supplied by ESA, and the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter from Jaxa, which are currently linked between them to form a single spacecraft, together with the ESA Mercury Transfer Module, which will propel it to enter Mercury's orbit, when the two probes detach and begin to collect valuable data on the planet, its (almost ) atmosphere, and its nucleus.

(image: Esa) If all goes as hoped, on 5 December 2025 Bepicolombo will therefore begin its surveys, thanks to the 11 scientific instruments mounted on the orbiter of the Esa (di four of which are Italian-led), reserved for the mapping of the planet, and to the five groups of instruments of the Japanese probe, which will investigate the magnetosphere of Mercury.

The aim is to study the characteristics of the planets in greater depth. and they orbit at a very close distance from their star, a class of which Mercury is the only example within the solar system. Bepicolombo will therefore try to characterize the shape and internal structure of the planet, its composition and its geology; will provide a 3D model of the surface; will examine its atmosphere (or rather exosphere, since it is composed of extremely rarefied gases, such as those found in the earth's atmosphere at an altitude greater than 500 kilometers from the surface); will study the magnetosphere, the origin of the planet's magnetic field, and the composition and origin of its polar deposits.

The long journey of Bepicolombo

Even before reaching Mercury, however , Bepicolombo already has a lot to do. The journey to the innermost planet of the Solar System is not easy: to enter orbit a probe must lose a lot of energy and deal with the gravity of the Sun, which makes it difficult to maintain a stable orbit.

Non a case, Bepicolombo takes its name from the man who invented the technique used both by NASA and in the new Esa / Jaxa mission to reach Mercury: the Italian mathematician Giuseppe "Bepi" Colombo, who sensed that it is possible to exploit the gravity of Venus to put a probe on a trajectory that will lead it to encounter Mercury's orbit several times, and that these encounters can then be used to slow it down just enough to enter orbit around the planet with the ship's thrusters.

Venus, photographed by the Bepicolombo probe during the flyby of 15 October 2020. (photo: ESA / BepiColombo / MTM) All thanks to the effect called "gravitational slingshot", which allows you to exploit the gravity of a planet a to accelerate, decelerate or change the orbit of a probe during a flyby, or a close pass. Currently (at this link it is possible to observe the probe's journey in real time), Bepicolombo has already carried out three of these flybys: the first of the Earth in April last year, to deviate in the direction of Venus, and then two of Venus, to October of last year and in August of this, to get closer to the orbit of Mercury. At this point, from next October 1st a series of six successive flybys of Mercury will begin, which will lead it to slow down and enter an orbit close to that of the planet. At the end of the operations, the spacecraft will be captured by Mercury's weak gravity, and will be able to enter a stable orbit around the planet to begin its scientific surveys.

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