The European Space Agency (ESA) today finalizes the preparations for its first mission to Mercury, BepiColombo, an ambitious project launched together with its Japanese counterpart, JAXA, to decipher the secrets of the smallest planet in the Solar System.
From the spaceport of Kurú, in French Guiana, will take off this Saturday at 01.45 GMT (22.45 on Friday local time) aboard an Ariane 5 rocket the transfer module and the two orbiters, one European and the other Japanese, that collect the witness of the two previous missions of NASA.
So far only two ships, both American, have visited the planet: Mariner 10 flew over and offered his first close-up photographs taken between 1974 and 1975, and Messenger flew over it in 2008 and 2009 and was the first to orbit it, between 2011 and 2015 .
BepiColombo takes the name of the Italian mathematician and engineer Giuseppe (Bepi) Colombo (1920-1984), who proposed to NASA the interplanetary trajectories that would allow Mariner 10 to fly over it.
After its launch, it awaits a journey of more than 7 years in which, to position itself at the right speed in the orbit of the planet, will make 18 orbits around the Sun and will help the gravity of the Earth, Venus and Mercury itself in a total of nine overflights.
Once there, it will be like working "in a pizza oven", emphasizes to EFE the scientific chief of the project for the European orbiter, Johannes Benkhoff.
Mercury, the planet closest to the Sun, registers a solar radiation ten times more intense and an infrared flow 20 times higher than on Earth, a solar wind of up to 400 kilometers per second and temperatures that oscillate between 180 degrees below zero and 430
These conditions explain that it is the least explored of those that, like Venus, Earth and Mars, have a rocky composition.
"We have tried everything thoroughly, but we are going to a very hot environment," adds Benkhoff, aware of the risks of a mission in which 85% of its technology has been designed specifically for her.
Answers are expected from BepiColombo that help to better understand the formation and evolution of our Solar System and will also serve to experiment on Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity.
The two orbiters will work in a coordinated manner. The European (MPO) will observe Mercury from its orbit and will study its composition, topography and morphology, and the Japanese (MMO) will focus on its environment and magnetosphere
The scientific operations will begin in March 2026 and will last one year, extendible to another, in which the scientific data will be processed and archived at the ESA headquarters in Villanueva de la Cañada (ESAC) and the Cebreros antenna in Ávila. will be the main recipient, who will receive and send a signal to BepiColombo.
Studying the information will take years. "Everybody believes that the formation process on a planet like Mercury, so close to the Sun, ended millions of years ago, but observing changes since Messenger photographed it could indicate activity on its surface, it would be a fantastic result," says Benkhoff. .
In BepiColombo, a total of 16 countries participated, either in the implementation and financing of scientific instrumentation or in the construction of the satellite.
The final destination of the two orbiters is already written. When they run out of fuel, the agency will stop exercising active control over its orbit and as time goes by it will deteriorate its components, eventually crashing on its surface, as happened with Messenger in 2015.
The next logical step in his exploration, according to the project's chief scientist, would be to land on it. ESA does not contemplate this possibility for the moment, but "there are already discussions about it" within NASA, despite the technological challenges it presents.