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WASHINGTON — A Mercury-bound science mission from the European and Japanese space agencies began a seven-year journey to the Solar System’s smallest planet Oct. 19 aboard and Ariane 5 rocket.
The BepiColombo mission took off from the European Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana at 9:45 p.m. Eastern, marking the beginning of a 9-billion kilometer trip to the closest planet to the Sun.
BepiColombo’s four parts — two science orbiters, their carrier unit and a sunshield — separated as one 4,100-kilogram payload from the Ariane 5’s upper stage 27 minutes after liftoff. ESA confirmed signal acquisition shortly after separation from the Arianespace-operated launcher.
The spacecraft now begins a journey that includes nine planetary flybys for gravitational assists — one of Earth, two of Venus and six by Mercury — in order to safely arrive in orbit around the planet.
A direct trajectory to Mercury would give BepiColombo too much speed to not succumb to the sun’s gravity.
Once in Mercury’s orbit, BepiColombo’s carrier spacecraft will release the two orbiters, the European Space Agency’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter, to begin a one-year science mission.
BepiColombo is JAXA’s first joint mission with ESA, and both space agencies’ first mission to Mercury. The science mission builds on research from Mercury’s only two science missions: NASA’s Mariner 10, which performed three fly-bys in 1974 and 1975, and NASA’s Messenger, which orbited from 2011 to 2015 before crashing into the rocky planet’s surface.
ESA member states almost cancelled BepiColombo after the mission, which began in 2000, grew too large to fit in a Soyuz rocket, requiring a more expensive Ariane 5 to continue. In 2009 ESA approved the redesigned mission, featuring systems optimized for the extreme temperatures near Mercury, despite the increased cost.