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Home / Science / Why does it take so long to get to Mercury?

Why does it take so long to get to Mercury?



European and Japanese space agencies launched their first mission to Mercury yesterday (October 19, October 20, GMT), but now the engineers and admirers of the mission must wait seven years before the science of the project begins seriously.

The BepiColombo mission has such a long travel time because it is really difficult to successfully orbit our smallest planetary neighbor. It is so difficult that it took until 1985 for an engineer to find a way to get the orbital trajectories to work properly.

The problem arises because Mercury is so small and so close to the sun. That means it's spinning around the sun incredibly fast, and a spaceship hoping to visit the innermost planet has to pedal-to-the-metal to track down the fast-paced world. But there is a big catch: The gravitational pull of the sun will pull the spaceship so strongly towards the star that a ship like BepiColombo will have to slow down all the way to keep its course. [BepiColombo in Pictures: A Mercury Mission by Europe and Japan]

<img class = "pure-img lazy" big-src = "https://img.purch.com/h/1
400/aHR0cDovL3d3dy5zcGFjZS5jb20vaW1hZ2VzL2kvMDAwLzA4MC8xOTAvb3JpZ2luYWwvYmVwaWNvbG9tYm8tcGF0aC5qcGc/MTU0MDA0MDA0Nw==" src = "https://img.purch.com / w / 640 / aHR0cDovL3d3dy5zcGFjZS5jb20vaW1hZ2VzL2kvMDAwLzA4MC8xOTAvaTAyL2JlcGljb2xvbWJvLXBhdGguanBnPzE1NDAwNDAwNDc = "alt =" This graphic of the European space Agency shows the way to Mercury for the BepiColombo spacecraft after its launch on October 19, 2018. the spacecraft is again on the earth twice on Venus and six times Mercury fly before it goes into orbit in December 2025. [19659004] This European Space Agency chart shows the way to Mercury for the BepiColombo spacecraft after its launch on October 19, 2018. The spaceship will once fly on Earth, twice on Venus and six times on Mercury before it goes into orbit in December 2025.

Credit: ESA

To address this dual challenge BepiColombo drivers have carefully developed a combination of solar, chemical and planetary flyby that will work together to steer the spacecraft through this heavenly obstacle course. All in all, the spacecraft will consume more energy than it would reach Pluto, which is near the edge of the solar system. But these planetary overflights will bring BepiColombo's travel time to just over seven years.

The series of mission fly-bys – one of Earth in April 2020, two of Venus in 2020 and 2021, and six by Mercury between 2021 and 2025 – will change the spacecraft's orbit a little and get closer and closer to the target the mission. These fly-bys also give engineers the opportunity to ensure that many of the instruments aboard BepiColombo work as they should, with more than half of them going to be turned on.

Then, in December 2025, BepiColombo will slip into orbit around the small planet. As soon as the probe does, it will divide itself into the two science spaceships currently joined together for the long voyage: Europe's Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) and Japan's Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO). These two spacecraft will fly in complementary orbits, with the MPO orbiting the planet every 2.3 hours and MMO every 9.3 hours.

If all goes according to the plans of the scientists, these meticulous twists will allow the 16 instruments that make up BepiColombo collect many eyebrow-raising data on tiny, strange Mercury and how our entire solar system was created.

Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@space.com or follow her @meghanbartels . Follow us @SpaceTotcom and Facebook. Original article on Space.com


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