Tomorrow morning the European Space Agency (ESA) plans to launch its latest space exploration mission to Mercury called BepiColombo. The spacecraft is Europe’s first mission to Mercury which is the solar system’s least explored planet. UK space scientists and industry have worked in collaboration with ESA to develop and build the spacecraft. It will take off in the early hours of Saturday morning to begin a ten-year mission which will help scientists delve into the many unknowns of the mysterious planet.
UK companies such as Airbus, Thales Alenia Space and QinetiQ have developed and built elements of the two orbiters which will make the 48 million mile journey they to Mercury. These companies have worked with ESA and the Japanese Space Agency to develop elements of the spacecraft such as:
- In Stevenage, Airbus Defence and Space have developed the complex electrical and chemical propulsion systems for the structure of all modules of the spacecraft which will separate the spacecraft modules on arrival at Mercury.
- QinetiQ supplied the innovative electric propulsion system; A beam of charged particles that is expelled from the spacecraft to propel it forward. Ion propulsion produces low levels of thrust very efficiently compared with conventional chemical rockets.
- Thales Alenia Space UK supplied the Remote Interface Units that acquire sensor data and telemetry as well as driving the thrusters that control the spacecraft.
This contribution from UK companies helps to emphasise how the UK’s space sector is going from strength to strength. The sector currently employs around 40,000 people and is home to world-class science while growing the economy. The mission has several aims such as helping us to understand how a planet close to the sun forms and evolves, investigating many unsolved mysteries of Mercury and understanding how the planet deals with daily blasts from solar flares to try to protect Earth in the future. This mission will demonstrate the importance and value of space exploration, beyond the surface ‘cool’ factor of astronauts and rockets.