BepiColombo is Europe's first mission to Mercury. It will set off in July 2016 on a journey to the smallest and least explored terrestrial planet in our Solar System. When it arrives at Mercury in January 2024, it will endure temperatures in excess of 350 °C and gather data during its 1 year nominal mission, with a possible 1-year extension. The mission comprises two spacecraft: the Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) and the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO). BepiColombo is a joint mission between ESA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), executed under ESA leadership.
BepiColombo has been designed to provide the measurements necessary to study and understand the composition, geophysics, atmosphere, magnetosphere and history of Mercury. In particular, the mission has the following scientific objectives:
BepiColombo is named after Professor Giuseppe (Bepi) Colombo (1920-1984) from the University of Padua, Italy, a mathematician and engineer of astonishing imagination. He was the first to see that an unsuspected resonance is responsible for Mercury's habit of rotating on its axis three times for every two revolutions it makes around the Sun. He also suggested to NASA how to use a gravity-assist swing-by of Venus to place the Mariner 10 spacecraft in a solar orbit that would allow it to fly by Mercury three times in 1974-5.
ESA's Science Programme Committee decided at its meeting in Naples in 1999 to name the Mercury cornerstone mission in honour of Giuseppe Colombo's achievements.
The BepiColombo mission is based on two spacecraft: the ESA-led Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO), a three-axis stabilised and nadir pointing spacecraft with an instrument suite of 11 experiments and instruments, and the JAXA-led Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO), a spinning spacecraft carrying a payload of five experiments and instruments. A summary of the spacecraft characteristics is given in the table below.
|9 July 2016||Launch|
|16 July 2018||Earth flyby|
|22 September 2019||First Venus flyby|
|4 May 2020||Second Venus flyby|
|23 July 2020||First Mercury flyby|
|14 April 2021||Second Mercury flyby|
|6 July 2022||Third Mercury flyby|
|29 December 2022||Fourth Mercury flyby|
|4 February 2023||Fifth Mercury flyby|
|1 January 2024||Arrival at Mercury|
|1 April 2025||End of nominal mission|
|1 April 2026||End of extended mission|
Ground control: ESA is responsible for the overall mission design, and for the operation of the composite spacecraft up to the insertion of the MPO and MMO into their orbits. During the cruise, the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany, will coordinate the operation of the full composite spacecraft by using the Cebreros 35 m antenna in Spain. The ISAS/JAXA Sagamihara Space Operation Centre, using the Usuda 64 m antenna (Japan), will take over the operation of the MMO once it is in orbit around Mercury, while ESOC will remain in charge of the MPO spacecraft.
Science operations: ESA is responsible for the mission and scientific operation of the MPO. The BepiColombo Science Operation Centre will be at the European Space Astronomy Centre (ESAC) in Villafranca, near Madrid, Spain. It will define and coordinate the scientific observations, and assist the teams in operating their instruments.