A Mission To Mercury Seeking To Answer Fundamental Questions About Our Solar System's Smallest Planet

Friday, 19 October 2018 - 1:22PM
Space
Solar System
ESA
Friday, 19 October 2018 - 1:22PM
A Mission To Mercury Seeking To Answer Fundamental Questions About Our Solar System's Smallest Planet
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ESA/ATG medialab
When you're watching an Earth-sized mass hurtle into a supermassive black hole a billion light-years away, it's easy to forget that there are mysteries within our own Solar System we still haven't unraveled. For example: Mercury. Why is 60% of the planet's mass taken up by its core? How did it end up so close to the Sun? What does its interior look like? These are the exact questions that the BepiColombo mission aims to answer.

The mission is a joint effort by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), each of which contributed a probe that will examine a different facet of Mercury. The ESA's Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) will survey the planet's surface and help create a picture of its interior, while JAXA's Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO) will investigate Mercury's magnetic field and study its interactions with the solar wind produced by the Sun.

Mercury may not have always looked the way it does now. Some theories suggest that it endured a cataclysmic impact with another object while migrating to its current orbit, which might have caused it to shed a lot of outer mass. However, previous studies of the planet have revealed that Mercury contains a lot of compounds based on sulfur and potassium – which wouldn't have survived such a collision. According to Dave Rothery, a scientist involved with the mission: "Mercury doesn't really fit with our theories for how the Solar System formed, and we can't understand our planet fully unless we're able to explain Mercury as well."

BepiColombo's journey to Mercury will take seven years to complete, even though the planet is relatively close. The problem is the Sun: if the spacecraft were to head to Mercury at normal speed, it wouldn't be able to slow down in time to avoid falling into the grip of the Sun's powerful gravity. The mission will blast off today from a launchpad in French Guiana.

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