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    Europe heads towards Mercury, with help from Belgium

    © Belga
    © Belga

    The first European mission to Mercury launched on Saturday, from the European space port in Kourou (French Guyana). Mercury is the smallest and least explored planet in our Solar System. 

    The mission, known as “BepiColombo”, is a joint venture between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japanese Aerospatiale Exploration Agency (JAXA). It launched at 03.45 am Belgium time on Saturday. An Ariane 5 rocket took off with the mission’s 2 sensors onboard. Around 26 minutes later, they detached to start a 7-year and 9 billion kilometre journey through space. 

    The un-manned mission will continue the discoveries made by the NASA Messenger mission and try to answer the questions it raised. Messenger orbited and studied Mercury between 2011 and 2015. The ESA wants to learn more about the planet. The new mission will provide information about the evolution of a Solar System (not just ours) and the way planets form and change. It is most interested in planets in exoplanet systems that orbit their star. 

    “BepiColombo” became possible with the help of the ORB (Belgium Royal Observatory). The institution has developed several instruments for the mission. These instruments will study the rotation, tides and internal structure of Mercury. The ORB will run the studies and study the data collected. Liège and Ghent Universities are also involved. 

    With a diameter of 4,879 km (Earth = 12,756 km), Mercury is the smallest rocky planet in our Solar System. It is abnormally small, which makes scientists think it was struck by a large object early on. BepiColombo’s job is to investigate. 

    Mercury is a planet of extremes. Temperatures can rise to 430 degrees during the day and drop to –180 degrees at night. Previous missions have found ice at the bottom of polar craters. Researchers says this ice has accumulated there over time due to the planet being bombarded by comets. This ice has somehow avoided the sun’s UV rays. In total, there are 16 instruments on the 2 sensors that will study every aspect of Mercury.

    Jason Bennett
    The Brussels Times