BepiColombo mission launched, Europe to discover Mercury
On Saturday 20 October 2018, a launch from the European spaceport of Kourou, French Guyana, set off BepiColombo, the mission under European leadership which aims at exploring Mercury, the planet closest to the Sun, one of the least explored of the Solar System.
BepiColombo, named after mathematician, astronomer and engineer from Padua Giuseppe Colombo, is the result of a collaboration between ESA-European Space Agency and JAXA-Japanese Space Agency. The mission comprises two complementary spacecrafts: the European orbiter MPO-Mercury Planetary Orbiter, which will analyze Mercury’s surface and composition, and the Japanese MMO-Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter, which will study in detail Mercury’s magnetic environment, planet interaction with solar wind and the chemistry of its exosphere.
Italy gives a crucial contribution to the mission through ASI-Italian Space Agency, INAF-National Institute for Astrophysics and Sapienza University of Rome. Italy is responsible for four of the eleven European experiments onboard MPO orbiter:
- ISA-Italan Spring Accelerometer, coordinated by Valerio Iafolla from the INAF Institute for Space Astrophysics and Planetology, will collect data on the inner structure of Mercury and will also test Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity;
- MORE-Mercury Orbiter Radio science Experiment, coordinated by Luciano Iess from the Sapienza University of Rome, which will determine how the BepiColombo spacecraft falls under the gravitational field of Mercury, thus allowing also to track a sort of tomography of its inner structure;
- SERENA-Search for Exosphere Refilling and Emitted Neutral Abundances, conducted by Stefano Orsini, from the Institute of the INAF Institute for Space Astrophysics and Planetology, which will investigate the interactions between the planet surface and its atmosphere, the solar wind and its magnetic field;
- SIMBIO-SYS-Spectrometers and Imagers for MPO BepiColombo Integrated Observatory SYStem, coordinated by Gabriele Cremonese, from the INAF Observatory of Padua, which will provide coloured images of the surface geology volcanism, age and composition.
Also the role played by the Italian industry is very important, with Thales Alenia Space – a joint venture between Thales and Leonardo – which coordinated a consortium of 35 European companies to develop the telecommunications, thermal control and electric power distribution systems.
BepiColombo will arrive at just 58 million km from the Sun, in the most inner region of our planet system, in about 7.2 years. Then, the two spacecrafts MPO and MMO will separate to position themselves in their respective orbits around Mercury, landing on the planet being scheduled around December 2025.