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ESA's Mercury mission named BepiColombo in honour of a space pioneer

Date: 15 February 2007
Depicts: Professor Giuseppe Colombo
Copyright: ESA

The Italian mathematician and engineer, Giuseppe (Bepi) Colombo (1920-1984), who played a crucial role in the first mission to Mercury.

In the 1960's, as NASA began to study a mission to Mercury, Giuseppe (Bepi) Colombo, a distinguished Italian specialist in celestial mechanics who taught at Galileo's old university in Padua, put forward a proposal that had the potential to triple the scientific return from such a mission.

Colombo had previously revolutionised studies of the innermost planet by proposing that Mercury rotated once every 59 Earth days, rather than the widely believed figure of 88 days.

His studies of the planned Mercury mission recognised that, after the first flyby, the spacecraft would enter a 176 day orbit around the Sun. This was exactly double the 88 days that it takes Mercury to complete one revolution around the Sun – Mercury’s year. With a few minor orbital corrections, the craft could repeatedly return to Mercury's orbit at precisely the times when the planet was in that location. The only drawback was that the surface lighting conditions would be the same for each encounter.

The Mariner 10 mission, benefiting from Giuseppe Colombo's pre-launch calculations, was able to make repeated flybys above the same hemisphere of Mercury with only minimal use of its propulsion system.

ESA's BepiColombo mission to Mercury is named in his honour.


Last Update: 15 June 2015

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