Successful launch for satellite heading to study Mercury

2018-10-24 05:39

Airbus is celebrating the successful launch of a satellite heading to the planet Mercury.

The aerospace company led the building of the BepiColombo spacecraft, which will help scientists study the sun's closest planet and its environment.

Mercury has not been exploration much. NASA says that Mariner 10 was sent to the planet in 1973 in a flyby mission and the Messenger spacecraft orbited Mercury in 2011.

BepiColombo is expected to arrive on Mercury in 2025 after an 8.5 billion kilometre journey and will allow scientists to study the planet's environment with the 16 instruments on board.

"This very complex mission is the result of a truly inspiring international cooperation among 83 companies from 16 European countries and Japan," said Nicolas Chamussy, head of space systems at Airbus.

Hot planet

The spacecraft is made up of two vehicles that will simultaneously observe the planet. It was launched from the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana.

Despite being the smallest planet in the solar system, Mercury is riddled with craters, suggesting a number of impacts which have occurred because there is no significant atmosphere, says

Temperatures, though, swing wildly from a high of 450°C to a low of -170°C at night, the largest temperature swing in the solar system.

Airbus had to ensure that BepiColombo, known affectionately as "Bepi", was engineered to withstand the harsh space environment.

"All great missions come with challenges: Airbus had to develop sophisticated thermal control solutions and even 'special' solar arrays, capable of tilting 75 degrees away from the sun to limit the temperature. Now its challenge is to complete the journey safely and deliver the science we're all waiting for," said Chamussy.

The spacecraft was launched on an Ariane 5 rocket that will enter solar orbit at 120 000km/h.

In order to ensure that the probe will successfully orbit Mercury, a number of strategies have been employed to slow it down.

The European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany, developed an electric propulsion system to brake the craft just 60 days into its journey.


Workers examine the Bepi stack. (Airbus)

Final approach

Bepi will also make nine planetary passes: One of Earth, two of Venus and six of Mercury.

Finally, xenon-propelled ion thrusters powered by 14m by 1.8m solar arrays will be used to slow down the vehicle.

As Bepi makes its final approach to orbit Mercury, its transfer module, which houses the thrusters and the arrays, will be jettisoned and the orbiters will manoeuvre into position.


Bepi's stack configuration is seen. (Airbus)

Bepi was built as a joint project between the European Space Agency and the Japanese Space Agency.

The satellite was named in honour of Professor Giuseppe "Bepi" Colombo who was instrumental in the success of the Mariner 10 mission in the 1970s.

The cost of the mission is estimated at €1.65bn (about R27.1bn).

"This international effort, with Airbus teams from five countries, is the natural consequence of humanity's desire to discover more about this little-known planet and the origins of our solar system," said Chamussy.

Bepi facts and figures


6.4 metres


4 tons



Countries involved


Companies involved


Number of mission elements


Arrival at Mercury


Distance to travel

8.5 billion kilometres

Estimated Cost



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