BepiColombo has a daunting task ahead of it -- surviving the red hot heat of the sun as it orbits the planet closest to our star. The joint ESA and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency mission will be only the third to study Mercury when it launches in 2015. Missions to Mercury are rare, as keeping a spacecraft in stable orbit around Mercury is made difficult by the vast gravitational pull of the sun.
After a six-year journey to the planet, the satellite will have to withstand temperatures in excess of 350 degrees Celsius while it studies the structure and chemistry of the planet and its atmosphere, and probes the source of Mercury’s magnetic field. Key questions for BepiColombo to answer include "How does a relatively small planet like Mercury generate a magnetic field?"and "Is there ice on the dark side of the planet?" As the planet closest to the sun, Mercury could provide insight into how planets form.
BepiColombo will travel to Mercury using an ion engine, a drive powered by the expulsion of charged particles. Once it is approaching the planet, the craft will split into two orbiters, each charged with gathering different data, the Mercury Planetary Orbiter and the Mercury Magnetosphere Orbiter. Both of these craft will send back data for at least a year.
July 13, 2012 11:43 AM PDT
Photo by: Nick Heath/TechRepublic
| Caption by: Nick Heath
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