The BepiColombo Mercury Probe is a joint mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) that studies the magnetic field, magnetosphere, interior, and surface structures Mercury is to investigate two vehicles – the Mercury Planetary O rbiter (MPO) and the Mercury Magnetosphere Orbiter (MMO). It is not yet known how many concurrent applications the MMO or PvP supports. Repeated complaints to the ESA about this lack of information meant that our emails were blocked. ( That actually did not happen -Ed). It also contains the most powerful ion systems we've ever built into a spacecraft. This week, scientists have successfully tested these engines for the first time in space to prepare for a mid-December burn that will put the spacecraft on its Mercury trajectory.
At first glance, the actual performance of the "most powerful ion drive ever built" may seem modest. The Mercury Transfer Module (also known as the Engine and Support Framework for the first two probes) uses four QinetiQ T6 ion engines that offer a combined maximum thrust of 290 mN. A Newton is the force needed to give a mass of 1 kg an acceleration of one meter per second per second. 290 mN, attached to the bottom of a spacecraft, may not sound like much, but this is the genius of ion propulsion. Unlike chemical rockets, which deliver much more thrust over much shorter periods of time, ion thrusters deliver low thrust over a very long period of time. They are unable to function in atmospheres or lift a spacecraft from the ground, but once in space, they can sustain a sustained boost with a fraction of the fuel needed for a chemical rocket.
"Electric drive technology is very novel and extremely delicate," explains Elsa Montagnon, Operations Manager at BepiColombo. "This means that BepiColombo's four engines had to be thoroughly checked after take-off by slowly turning them on one at a time and closely monitoring their function and impact on the spacecraft."
The following video shows Mercury's orbital launch pattern and gravity, including the six Mercury passing-bys required to decelerate the spacecraft properly for orbital insertion.
Both approaches can contribute to the achievement of the Mercury orbit, but Mercury is indeed one of the planet's most difficult planets to achieve a stable orbit at all. Mercury moves at a velocity of 47.87 km / s around the Sun, compared to the Earth's 29.78 km / s. Neptune moves at 5.43 km / s for the curious, and the planet's orbital velocity decreases with increasing distance from the sun. Just as Douglas Adams once wrote that the secret of flying was "to throw himself on the ground and miss", the secret to orbiting Mercury is to throw himself in the sun , exactly . Miss it right, and you end up in Mercury orbit. Missing it wrong, and your probe is in an unprecedented position to make a very different kind of observation for a much shorter period of time. Whether you use ion engines or chemical rockets, it will take years to fit properly into Mercury's orbit.
BepiColombo will further expand the work of NASA Messenger and conduct its own detailed analysis of Mercury's current structure and future development. The ESA Landing Page contains a detailed discussion and comparison between the older NASA mission and BepiColombo's planned scientific endeavors.
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