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