The first mission to Mercury has been launched on 19 Oct., and the European and Japanese space agencies are happy to announce that everything is going according to plan. But why does it have to endure a 7-year long journey until it starts the actual study?
A Long Journey To Reach a Tiny Planet
Getting close to a small planet, especially which is this close to the Sun is the tricky part. Because of its size and closeness to the Sun, the planet orbit the sun very fast, which makes it very difficult for any spacecraft that wants to visit it. That spacecraft would need to have a lot of speed to catch up with Mercury, but it will also have to be careful at the sun’s gravity pull.
Until 1985, an engineer figured out the path that a spacecraft should take to reach Mercury. Now, BepiColombo’s trajectory is settled, and it will also need to be speedy, but also brake throughout its course so that it won’t be tugged by the sun off its course.
Such a difficult driving requires an array of mechanisms. Engineers had to combine solar power, chemical fuel, and planetary flybys to help steer the spacecraft through the space obstacle course. If it were to go to Pluto, it would need a lot less energy than it needs to go to Mercury! And imagine that the edge of the solar system is a lot further than the distance between Earth and Mercury.
Flying By Earth, Venus, and Mercury
With the planet flybys, the craft will need seven years to properly reach its destination.
BepiColombo will fly by Earth in April 2020, twice around Venus in 2020 and 2021, and six times around Mercury between 2021 and 2025. Finally, the spacecraft will reach the target – the orbit of the planet, and deploy the two instruments developed by ESA and JAXA: Bepi and Mio, plus other 14 instruments. The two will fly in the inner and outer orbit, respectively, and measure the magnetic field, and gather data about the planet’s surface.
Hopefully, if everything goes according to plan – after the 16 instruments do their job, scientists will learn more about the tiny Mercury and how the solar system was born.
Andre Blair s is the lead editor for Advocator.ca. He holds a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Toronto, and a Master of Science in Public Health (M.S.P.H.) from the School of Public Health, Department of Health Administration, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Andre specializes in environmental health, but writes on a variety of issues.