Mercury probe BepiColombo probe flies past Venus

Venus during BepiColombo fly-by
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The two-pronged European and Japanese probe BepiColombo today has completed its first of two fly-bys of Venus on its way to an arrival at Mercury in 2025.

The image to the right is one of 64 taken during the fly-by. The science team has created a movie from those images, showing Venus slide past as the spacecraft slewed to view it. During the fly-by the instruments on board its Japanese and European orbiters, both of which will separate and operate independently once they reach Mercury, gathered data of Earth’s sister planet.

The spacecraft still needs one more Venus fly-by plus six past Mercury to get it on a trajectory that will put it in orbit around Mercury. It has also already completed one fly-by past Earth in this complicated route.

BepiColombo begins first operational engine burn

The European/Japanese mission to Mercury has begun the first operational firing of its four ion engines, set to last for the next two months.

This might seem like a ridiculously long burn, since most conventional rocket engines fire for minutes, not months. These are ion engines, however, far more efficient but producing a very tiny acceleration. It takes a long time for their burns to accumulate a velocity change.

BepiColombo tests its ion engines

The joint European/Japanese mission BepiColombo has begun testing its ion engine thrusters for the first time in space as it heads to Mercury.

Testing took place during a unique window, in which BepiColombo remained in continuous view of ground-based antennas and communications between the spacecraft and those controlling it could be constantly maintained. This was the only chance to check in detail the functioning of this fundamental part of the spacecraft, as when routine firing begins in mid-December, the position of the spacecraft will mean its antennas will not be pointing at Earth, making it less visible to operators at mission control.

They have so far successfully tested two of the four engines.

ESA unveils dual orbiter mission to Mercury

After twenty years of development, the European Space Agency this week finally unveiled the completed dual orbiters that it hopes to launch on a seven year journey to Mercury in October 2018.

The 4,100-kilogram BepiColombo consists of two orbiters that will launch together — the ESA-managed Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) and the JAXA-owned Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO). The two spacecraft will be delivered to the orbit around Mercury stacked on top of each other by the Mercury Transfer Module (MTM). During the seven-year journey, the MMO will be shielded from the sun by the MMO Sunshield and Interface Structure (MOSIF), which will also serve as a mechanical and electrical interface between the two orbiters.

“MPO focuses on the planet, the surface and the interior size,” said Reininghous. “The orbit is a polar one — 480km times approximately 1500km — a little bit elliptical but extremely close to the planet as such with a return period of 2.3 hours. The data return is estimated at 1.5 gigabit per year.”

The MMO will focus on the planetary environment including the planet’s atmosphere, according to Reininghous. “The orbit is also polar but far more elliptical — 590 km times approximately 11,700 km. It has a period of 9.3 hours. The data return is approximately 10 percent of what we expect from the MPO.”

The European orbiter is much larger and more expensive, with Japanese probe budget being about a tenth the cost.

According to ESA, the mission took so long to build because in 2004, after about seven years of development, ESA suddenly realized that its orbiter’s thermal protection was inadequate, and required a complete redesign. To me, this is either outright incompetence (they knew from the start they were going to Mercury) or a clever way to extend the funding so that it provides an entire lifetime’s work for its builders. Think about it. Twenty-one years from concept to launch, then seven years to fly to Mercury, and then one to two years in orbit. That’s more than thirty years for this single mission.