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ESA Planned Missions

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The European Space Agency (ESA) has one upcoming mission planned to take place between now and 2012. It is:

  • BepiColombo (2012) - two planned orbiters for Mercury


BepiColomboThis mission is still being planned and the information here is speculative, especially considering that the mission won't launch for (probably) six years. It will be the first ESA mission to Mercury; it will be the third mission to ever Mercury.

The mission will be designed to study Mercury with two crafts: The Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) and Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO). The purpose of the two crafts is to study Mercury's form, interior structure, geology, composition, craters, origin, structure, dynamics of its magnetic field, composition and dynamics of the vestigial atmosphere, test Einstein's theory of General Relativity, search for asteroids sunward of Earth, and to generally study the origin and evolution of a planet close to a parent star.

Specific goals of the MPO are to study the surface and internal composition of Mercury. The MMO will study the magnetosphere. The MSE will determine the chemical composition and physical properties of the surface, especially how much iron is present in the top layer of the crust. The attention to iron is because Mercury is a very dense planet (its density is about 5.4), and scientists theorize that it has an unusually large iron core.

The two parts could be deployed together, but they probably will be launched in two loads, one with the MPO and the other being the MMO and MSE. The spacecrafts will have 4.2-year trips to Mercury using solar-electric propulsion (based upon SMART-1) and moon, Venus, and Mercury gravity assists. The MPO and MMO will be captured into polar orbits, 400x1500 km (250x930 miles) for MPO and 400x12,000 km (250x7450 miles) for MMO.

Initial plans for a lander were cancelled due to budget constraints. Collaboration with the Japanese space agency ISAS is under consideration with the MMO.

The name for the BepiColombo mission comes from Guiseppe (Bepi) Colombo (1920-1984) from the University of Padua, Italy. He was a mathematician and engineer. He was the first to see that a resonance was responsible for Mercury's rotation of three times on its axis for every two revolutions about the sun. He also suggested to NASA to use a Venus gravity-assist to place Mariner 10 in a solar orbit that would allow it to flyby Mercury three times in 1974-75.

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