Mission to Mercury: Blast-off for UK-built spacecraft BepiColombo

The spacecraft Bepi Colombo is seen at the European Space Agency's European Space Research and Technology Centre in Noordwijk Netherlands

Image The Bepi Colombo will launch early on Saturday

Perched inside a protective nose cone atop the Ariane 5, ESA's Mercury Planetary Orbiter and JAXA's Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter were poised for blastoff from the Guiana Space Center near Kourou, French Guiana, at 9:45 p.m. EDT (GMT-4; 10:45 p.m. local time).

"We have sent the most complex stack of spacecraft that ever have been conceived into space, and to a very long journey to an environment which is truly out of the Earth; truly out of this world".

The spacecraft will take seven years to reach the planet closest to the sun. Mercury's extreme temperatures, the intense gravity pull of the sun and blistering solar radiation make for hellish conditions.

BepiColombo will fly by Earth in April 2020, twice around Venus in 2020 and 2021, and six times around Mercury between 2021 and 2025.

BepiColombo is the first European mission to the innermost planet in the solar system and the first spacecraft bound for Mercury in more than a decade.

The European Space Agency hopes the mission will shed new light into how the solar system formed and that it could even provide vital clues as to whether planets found orbiting other stars - known as exoplanets - could be habitable. However, it's only the first step of the probe's seven-year adventure to the sun-scorched planet. Mercury's almost non-existent atmosphere also means that the planet itself will be giving off extremely hot temperatures, pinning the obiters in a "heat sandwich" for most of their lifespan.

The Mercury Planetary Orbiter will also come equipped with a radiator created to reflect heat from the spacecraft, keeping it functioning even when close to the sun.

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A seven-year, eight-million-kilometer voyage expected to shed light on the mysteries of Mercury, the solar system's least-understood planet, is almost ready for takeoff. -How does such a small planet maintain an intrinsic magnetic field, and how does it interact with the solar wind? A maximum of two of the four xenon-propelled ion thrusters will be employed at any one time during the long journey; these will be used on more than 700 days in total, up to four months of which without interruption.

Airbus in the United Kingdom built large parts of the MPO and the mission's propulsion unit, called the Mercury Transfer Module (MTM).

Until 1985, an engineer figured out the path that a spacecraft should take to reach Mercury. It's estimated the costs borne by the European Space Agency and the Japanese space agency amount to about 1.65 billion euros.

Teams responsible for flying the bold BepiColombo mission to Mercury today completed the last major step in preparation for Saturday's liftoff-the final pre-launch "dress rehearsal" at ESA's ESOC control centre in Darmstadt, Germany. Some scientific data will be collected, but the best pictures we are likely to get during flybys will be from the selfie-cams mounted on the MTM.Arriving at MercuryOn arrival at Mercury in late December 2025, the transfer module will be detached.

"(Mercury is) the planet that helped us prove that relativity is real, the planet that is astonishingly hot on its sun-side and yet carries ice in craters at its North Pole", Bill Nye, CEO of the Planetary Society, said in a statement.

This is only the third mission to Mercury, following NASA's Mariner 10 in 1974-1975 and Messenger in 2011-2015.

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