With all the hype about Mars, it’s easy to forget there are other planets out there. Excuse Mercury while it takes a few minutes of the Red Planet’s spotlight.
The ESA recently launched its first mission to Mercury, BepiColombo, a collaboration with Japan’s space agency, JAXA. This spacecraft could possibly reveal some intense secrets about the planet closest to the sun. Even though Mercury had its atmosphere burned off ages ago and is constantly getting radiation-bombed (orbiting that close to a star will do that to you), it might still be hiding water and carbon from the birth of the solar system. Mysteries such as why it keeps shrinking could also be unraveled.
Mercury is a new frontier for the ESA. BepiColombo is the first satellite Europe is shooting to Mercury, following NASA’s MESSENGER (Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging) mission that orbited the planet and mapped it in a series of flybys between 2011 and 2015. MESSENGER discovered water ice at the planet’s north pole, where it has never been touched by the sun, found that carbon covers the entire planet, and unearthed data about its strange magnetic field.
BepiColombo is a fusion of ESA’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) and JAXA’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO), each equipped with an advanced suite of instruments that add up to more than MESSENGER carried. It will pick up where NASA left off with magnetic field research as well as investigating Mercury’s chemical makeup, interactions with solar gravity, and possibly find out whether its dense iron core means it formed within our solar system or trespassed from somewhere else aeons ago and ended up hanging out.
"Beyond completing the challenging journey, this mission will return a huge bounty of science,” said ESA Director General Jan Wörner in an official statement. “It is thanks to the international collaboration and the decades of efforts and expertise of everyone involved in the design and building of this incredible machine, that we are now on our way to investigating planet Mercury's mysteries."
Was Mercury always a small planet, or was it much more massive in the distant past? It keeps shrinking for some reason, though what that reason is remains unknown. Those icy patches exist because of its nonexistent atmosphere and weirdly pockmarked innards. Other things that make it so enigmatic are its irregular orbit, which changes orientation much faster than predicted. It was one of the first proofs of Einstein’s theory of general relativity and and is also used by scientists as one of the ultimate tests of that theory. BepiColombo seeks to find out the reasons behind these anomalies.
The gravity of Earth, Venus and Mercury will help BepiColumbo afloat as it traverses space. The Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter will enter a high orbit around Mercury before the Mercury Planetary orbiter assumes a lower orbit from which it will be able to image the surface. The same anti-radiation insulation that will be used on the ESA’s upcoming Solar Orbiter will protect it from the harsh effects of the sun, including temperatures slightly over 660 degrees Fahrenheit.
Mars will probably take over the internet again in a second, but next time you’re wondering what is going on beyond our atmosphere, keep an eye out for Mercury.