Issue #1(11) 2017 Science

Bepi-Colombo will unveil Mercury’s secrets

An enhanced colour image of Mercury by MESSENGER.
An enhanced colour image of Mercury by MESSENGER.
Andrea Ferrero Thales Alenia Space, Turin, Italy

With scorching temperatures of up to 400 degrees Celsius by day and a frigid -170 degrees by night, Mercury is no place for the ill-prepared! Nonetheless, this has not stopped a joint European and Japanese consortium from designing one of the most robust spacecraft ever made in order to brave these extreme conditions and get a close-up look at the ‘iron planet’. Known as BepiColombo, the mission is set for launch next year and aims to spend four Mercury years unlocking the secrets of this unique planet.

Mercury, the smallest and innermost planet of the Solar System, lives the paradox of being one of the closest planets to Earth and yet one of the least known - out of the eight planets of the Solar System, only the faraway Uranus and Neptune have been less explored.

This is not due to lack of interest, as the ‘iron planet’ has some unique and intriguing features: it is the second-densest planet in the Solar System after Earth, and the only other inner planet besides Earth to have a significant magnetic field. This is a key parameter in allowing life to take hold on a planet, as without its shielding Earth would receive a significant amount of dangerous radiation from the Sun thus making conditions difficult for biological life to develop and persist.

Nonetheless, despite its modest gravity, Mercury also has an atmosphere, albeit very tenuous, which is constantly replenished in a way yet to be clarified, and its craters may hold more ice than the Moon.

Not surprisingly, there is a lot of scope for scientific exploration. However, many technical challenges exist in trying to get a spacecraft in orbit around Mercury. This is due to the gravitational pull of the Sun which tends to accelerate any spacecraft approaching it. Conversely, to be inserted in to an orbit a spacecraft needs to be slowed down, therefore a lot of fuel needs to be carried for the manoeuvres – in fact going to Mercury requires more fuel than going to Pluto!

Find out more about BepiColombo's mission to Mercury in the full version of this article, available now to our subscribers.

To continue reading this premium article, subscribe now for unlimited access to all online content

If you already have a login and password to access - Please log in to be able to read all the articles of the site.

Popular articles

See also


View from Inmarsat: the search for MH370 and using satellites for safety


From NEOs to real action: testing asteroid impact scenarios


A door closes

Popular articles

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne, a twostage, expendable rocket that launches from a dedicated 747-400 carrier aircraft, called Cosmic Girl has been contracted for launches to replenish the OneWeb constellation and for the GomSpace ADS-B and AIS monitoring Astronautics

Transforming the launch market for small spacecraft

An artistic interpretation of Omaha Crater. At the far lakeside is a hydroelectric turbine which stores energy by pumping brine from lower to upper hydroelectric brine reservoirs. A reservoir pairing and habitation modules are shown at right. Specials

Developing Mars

Artist’s concept showing NASA’s Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV) on a near-Earth asteroid mission. Opinion

Why national space laws on the exploitation of resources of celestial bodies contradict international law