Swiss technology on a mission bound for Mercury

European Space Agency

European Space Agency

A Mercury-bound science mission from the European and Japanese space agencies began a seven-year journey to the Solar System's smallest planet October 19 aboard and Ariane 5 rocket.

The rocket launch is scheduled to take place at 2.45am United Kingdom time (1.45am UTC) from French Guiana.

Media playback is unsupported on your deviceMedia captionMercury: Learning from the strangest planetWhy is it such a long journey?

"All great missions come with challenges: Airbus had to develop sophisticated thermal control solutions and even "special" solar arrays, capable of tilting 75 degrees away from the Sun to limit the temperature".

A complex series of fly-bys past the Earth, Venus, and Mercury will also help to reduce BepiColombo's velocity by 7km per second.

It's the first time the European and Japanese space agencies (Esa and Jaxa) have set out for Mercury.

Those probes will roam Mercury for a year before sending their findings back to Earth.

"BepiColombo will build on the discoveries and questions raised by NASA's Messenger mission to provide the best understanding of Mercury and Solar System evolution to date, which in turn will be essential for understanding how planets orbiting close to their stars in exoplanet systems form and evolve, too".

Mercury is the innermost planet to the Sun and is, unusually, mostly made of metal. The Japanese satellite, MMO (Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter) or "million" - exploring the magnetic field.

An ambitious European-led mission will depart on a fact-finding mission for Mercury, the least explored planet in the solar system in a trip expected to take seven years. It will study the internal structure, the magnetic field and the surface composition.

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BepiColombo's scientists seek to dig into all of these points with 16 instruments divided between the two spacecraft. Moreover, some of the instruments created to study Mercury in a particular way can be used in a completely different way at Venus, which has a thick atmosphere compared with Mercury's exposed surface.

Enlarge / Some of the main science themes for the BepiColombo mission.

Simulations have been carried out to ensure the spacecraft can endure the extreme solar heating it will experience during the orbit.

Scientist Joe Zender explains, "If we want to understand our Earth and how life can [begin] on Earth and maybe on other planets we have to understand our solar system".

Here, the BepiColombo spacecraft stack is being hoisted up inside the Final Assembly Building, in preparation to be mounted on the Ariane 5 launch vehicle.

Scientists hope the £1.4 billion mission will unravel some of Mercury's mysteries, such as the reason for its oversized iron core, its spectacular volcanic vents, and tantalising hints of water ice in shadowy parts of the scorching hot planet.

After launch, BepiColmbo must constantly brake, otherwise it will fly straight past the planet!

Although this is the first European mission to explore Mercury, NASA has already sent three spacecraft to the planet.

NASA's MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) spacecraft ended its mission in 2015 with a dramatic, but planned, event - crashing into the surface of the planet that it had been studying for over four years.

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