An official launch date has been set for the long-planned BepiColombo mission to Mercury. Consisting of three conjoined unmanned spacecraft, the joint ESA/JAXA deep space probe will lift off atop an Ariane 5 rocket from the ESA Spaceport at Kourou, French Guiana on October 18, 2018 to begin its seven-year voyage to the innermost planet of the Solar System.
BepiColombo is actually three spacecraft arranged in what ESA calls a composite "stack". The basis is the Mercury Transfer Module, which contains four QinetiQ T6 ion thrusters. Powered by solar panels, this will allow the spacecraft to carry out complex orbital maneuvers as it makes a series of nine flybys of Earth, Venus, and Mercury itself to place the modules in their final orbits around the smallest planet in our system. The first flyby of Mercury will take place three years after launch.
Connected to the Transfer Module is the Mercury Planetary Orbiter, which will study the planet using a series of imagers, spectroscopes, radiation sensors, and thermal sensors. The final component is the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter, which will go into a polar orbit and send back data on Mercury's magnetic field and the solar winds. When BepiColombo reaches Mercury, these modules will be released in sequence to place them in their proper trajectories.
ESA says that if the October 18 (October 19, 03:45 GMT) date isn't possible, the launch window remains open until November 29. Meanwhile, the final preparations are being made, including mission simulations at mission control in Darmstadt, Germany.
"We have had a great start to our launch campaign in Kourou, and are on track for launch in less than ninety days," says ESA's BepiColombo project manager Ulrich Reininghaus. "We have an incredibly packed schedule, but it is great to see our spacecraft building up together for the final time."
The following animation takes us through BepiColombo's launch to Mercury:
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