Europe will soon be flying its first mission to innermost planet of our Solar System – Merucy – in collaboration with Japan and as a step towards that mission the two agencies have unveiled their spacecraft named BepiColombo for the first ever time.
BepiColombo will be launching in 2018. The spacecraft has an unusual design, comprising a “stacked aircraft” carrying two orbiters — one European, the other Japanese — which will separate on arrival to go into different, but complementary orbits around Mercury. ESA says that the spacecraft will be following up on many of the observations made by NASA’s Messenger mission.
The joint project with the Japanese agency JAXA, which has cost more than 1.3 billion euros ($1.48 billion), involves some 33 companies from 12 EU nations, as well as firms from the US and Japan. The mission has seen many delays, but the mission chiefs are now confident that it is on track to launch in October next year.
Airbus said it has covered the European orbiter with specially-designed “high-temperature multi-layered insulation” which is “made up of 50 layers of ceramics and aluminium,” while the antennae are “made of heat-resistant titanium, covered by a newly-developed coating”.
“We are flying into a pizza oven which is why we had to test materials at a very high and different temperature rates. Sometimes with very unwanted results,” said Ulrich Reininghaus, the ESA BepiColombo project manager.
So far only two NASA missions have visited Mercury — Mariner 10 in the 1970s and Messenger, which orbited the planet from 2011 until it ran out of fuel in April 2015.
About 70% of the technology for BepiColombo had to be developed from scratch, resulting in delays of several years. While talking one-on-one with the engineers later, some would quietly admit that there were times when they were not sure they could solve the problems. But they persevered, and the mission got built.