Probing Mercury

In 1974, the first space probe form Earth skimmed past Mercury.

Fe11 Mariner 10
Mariner 10 flies past Mercury for the first time.

As we discussed in a previous post, getting to Mercury is a challenge, so it wasn’t until the early 21st Century that we tried again. This second mission was more ambitious than the first.

The MESSENGER spacecraft achieves Mercurial orbit.
The MESSENGER spacecraft achieves Mercurial orbit.

Unfortunately, MESSENGER can’t maintain its orbit forever. By the end of 2015, the probe is expected to run out of fuel. After that, it will eventually crash somewhere on Mercury’s surface.

But don’t worry! The European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) have teamed up to send two new probes to Mercury.

Fe11 BepiColombo
The BepiColombo spacecraft will separate into two probes once it reaches Mercury.

The ESA-JAXA mission is named BepiColombo in honor of the Italian mathematician and scientist Giuseppi “Bepi” Colombo. It was Professor Colombo’s calculations that enabled Mariner 10 to safely approach Mercury back in the 1970s.

The BepiColombo spacecraft is scheduled to launch in July of 2016, and the two probes should reach Mercury in early 2024.



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