For the first time in more than 14 years, a spacecraft is headed toward Mercury — the smallest and innermost planet of our solar system. Known as BepiColombo, the spacecraft’s mission is to unravel the secrets of this enigmatic planet and to find out all that it can about Mercury’s atmosphere, magnetic field, and geology.
As the Inquisitr previously reported, the BepiColombo mission represents a collaboration between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) — with both space agencies sending in their own probe to investigate the planet closest to the sun.
“BepiColombo is the first European mission to Mercury, the smallest and least explored planet in the inner solar system. It is the first Mercury mission to send two science orbiters to make complementary measurements of the planet’s dynamic environment at the same time,” explained ESA officials.
While ESA will be deploying the Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO), JAXA is providing the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO) — which this summer was given the name “Mio,” which translates as “waterway” or “fairway.”
“It is a fitting name denoting how far the MMO mission has come, navigating its course past important research and development milestones. It also carries the connotation of wishing the spacecraft a safe journey,” JAXA announced in June.
The two orbiters will be packed inside a transport module that launches tonight from Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana.
“The joint ESA and JAXA BepiColombo mission is ready for liftoff at the start of a journey to discover more about planetary oddball Mercury,” ESA tweeted earlier today.
???? The joint ESA and @JAXA_en #BepiColombo mission is ready for liftoff at the start of a journey to discover more about planetary oddball #Mercury. Find out more in this month's @euronews space programme (in 8 langs: ????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????)https://t.co/B9DpWqAiGa
— ESA (@esa) October 19, 2018
The module will blast off into space atop an Arianespace Ariane 5 rocket, which is scheduled to soar to the skies at 9:45 p.m. EDT, notes Space. The BepiColombo module is slated to be deployed about 26 minutes after launch, and is expected to get in touch with mission control soon after that.
To watch the spacecraft fly off to Mercury, tune in to the ESA website and follow the live coverage starting from 9:15 p.m. EDT.
“Walk with us to the launchpad!” the mission’s team tweeted a few hours ago.
— Bepi (@ESA_Bepi) October 19, 2018
Should anything arise to hinder tonight’s launch, liftoff will be pushed back by 24 hours. The mission has a very wide launch window, which lasts until November 29.
The spacecraft will be spending the next seven years flying in the direction of the sun — similar to NASA’s Parker Solar Probe. Just like the U.S. probe, BepiColombo will also swing by Venus for gravity-assist maneuvers — and venture as close as possible to Mercury.
“On its 7.2 year journey to the innermost planet, BepiColombo will fly by Earth once, Venus twice and Mercury six times before entering into orbit,” ESA officials detailed in a news release.
According to The Conversation, the BepiColombo spacecraft is named in memory of Giuseppe (Bepi) Colombo, an Italian mathematician and engineer who first proposed gravity-assist flybys for spacecraft.
This is only the third spacecraft to journey to Mercury, after NASA’s Messenger and Mariner 10 missions set out to map the planet in August 2004 and in November 1973, respectively.
While Messenger orbited Mercury between 2011 and 2015, Mariner 10 performed three flybys of the planet in 1974 and 1975 — and was the first to discover the planet’s thin atmosphere and magnetic field.