Mission control endeavors tirelessly to rescue a spacecraft bound for Mercury

Universe Explorer BepiColombo

The interplanetary traveler BepiColombo captures rare up-close visuals of Mercury during a scheduled gravity-assisted flyby in 2023.Recognition: ESA / JAXA

An intricate mission to Mercury that embarked on its grand cosmic journey half a dozen years ago has encountered crucial propulsion challenges that authorities warn could jeopardize efforts to study the celestial body nearest to the sun. 

BepiColombo, a collaborative endeavor between European and Japanese space programs, is en route to rendezvous with Mercury on September 5 for the initial of three pivotal flybys designed to position the mechanical explorer on the accurate trajectory around the planet in the upcoming year. Subsequently, in October 2025, its dual scientific devices — one under the supervision of the European Space Agency and the other managed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency — are scheduled to detach from a module to investigate the planet’s surface and magnetic field.

However, the feasibility of these scientific activities proceeding as scheduled is uncertain. During a maneuver on April 26, the solar-powered electric propulsion module failed to supply sufficient power to the spacecraft’s thrusters, as reported by ESA. Approximately 11 days later, engineers managed to restore the spacecraft’s propulsion close to its prior level but approximately 10% lower. 

“A task force of specialists is currently diligently unraveling the underlying cause of the complication and its potential consequences on the remaining trajectory,” expressed Camille Bello, a representative for ESA, stated. 

the planet Mercury

To compensate for the reduced thrust output of the spacecraft, the team has prolonged the duration of the propulsion phase to realign the craft with the scheduled flybys from September to January 2025. Regarding the root of the propulsion issue, engineers are still in the process of analyzing it, scrutinizing all available data meticulously.

“We have identified that the source of the complication lies in the availability of electrical power from the Mercury Transfer Module,” Bello elucidated. “The electric propulsion thrusters themselves are functioning properly.” 

Mercury ranks among the most underexplored rocky worlds within the solar system. Being hot and even more challenging to reach than Saturn, it has not undergone the same depth of exploration as the other planets orbiting the sun. Only two previous spacecraft, both from NASA missions, have been dispatched to the Swift Planet, named for its swift orbit around the sun.

BepiColombo, launched off in October 2018 on an Ariane 5 rocket from a European space base in South America, is committed to examining the ice-filled polar craters, the planet’s magnetic field, and the mysterious “hollows” on its surface. Mercury’s external shell is cloaked in ancient lava spills, punctured by cosmic projectiles over nearly 4 billion years.

By enriching our knowledge of Mercury’s structure, atmosphere, and magnetic properties, scientists can gain deeper insights into the formation of rocky, Earth-like planets.

Nevertheless, it isn’t the first hurdle for BepiColombo. Last year, mission controllers executed a significant modification in the course to counterbalance earlier thruster interruptions. Without this adjustment, BepiColombo was at risk of veering off course by about 15,000 miles and ending up on the incorrect side of the planet, as reported by ESA.

Explaining the difficulty in reaching Mercury

The series of successive flybys within the mission are imperative due to the immense challenge involved in reaching Mercury. For the spacecraft to enter an orbit around the planet, it must decelerate sufficiently to be captured by Mercury’s gravitational pull. If it’s moving too swiftly, it might zoom past the planet. The complexity lies in the fact that as the spacecraft approaches the sun, its velocity increases akin to a bicycle going downhill. 

Slowing down within the vacuum of space presents a formidable obstacle. The intricate maneuvering of swooping around planets serves as a method for the spacecraft to dissipate excess energy without carrying excessive quantities of fuel that would make the craft too heavy for launch. 

If the mission control team can effectively counteract the power issue afflicting the spacecraft, scientific operations can commence in the spring of 2026.

Evan Brooks

Evan is a seasoned reporter with an insatiable curiosity for the latest gadgets and breakthroughs in science and tech.

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