Europe, Japan ready spacecraft for 7-year journey to Mercury

Ariane 5 rocket lifts off for it's 100th mission to space from Kourou French Guiana

Ariane 5 rocket lifts off for it's 100th mission to space from Kourou French Guiana

BepiColombo was launched into space by an Ariane 5 heavy lift rocket from the European space port at Kourou, French Guiana, on Saturday.

Liftoff from the European Arianespace launch complex in Kourou, French Guiana, came off flawlessly at 10:45 p.m. (6:45 p.m. ET).

Media playback is unsupported on your deviceMedia captionMercury: Learning from the strangest planetWhy is it such a long journey?

"After months of practice, teams here at mission control are eager to see BepiColombo depart from our planet, and they're ready to guide it carefully every day for seven years until it arrives at Mercury".

Another major challenge for mission planners was ensuring the spacecraft could withstand the searing temperatures of more than 350C so close to the sun.

Bepicolombo has to circle Earth once, Venus twice, and Mercury itself six times.

The spacecraft is a joint mission of the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and will be ESA's first mission to travel inward toward the Sun.

This mission aims to determine some basic information about Mercury: how it formed, how it changed over the solar system's history, what the interior of Mercury looks like, and even if the planet is still volcanically or geologically active today.

BepiColombo, named after the 20th century Italian scientist Giuseppe "Bepi" Colombo who studied the planet Mercury, is a European-built spacecraft that will transport the European Space Agency's Mercury Planetary Orbiter and the Japanese Space Agency's Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter to their final orbits, which will bring them down to within a few hundred kilometers of the planet's surface.

The mission will undertake a seven year cruise to Mercury, using a combination of solar electric propulsion and nine gravity assist flybys at Earth, Venus and Mercury.

NASA's Messenger spacecraft mapped the north polar topography of Mercury.

While MPO will go into an approximately 400 x 1500 km mapping orbit around Mercury, MMO will enter a highly elliptical orbit to study the planet's enigmatically strong magnetic field.

Mercury has always been the least explored planet in our solar system, but that could be about to change thanks to a British-built spacecraft. The two will fly in the inner and outer orbit, respectively, and measure the magnetic field, and gather data about the planet's surface.

The transfer module carrying the two satellites is equipped with ion thrusters and more traditional liquid-fueled rocket engines.

Scientist Joe Zender explains, "If we want to understand our Earth and how life can [begin] on Earth and maybe on other planets we have to understand our solar system".

Airbus in the United Kingdom built large parts of the MPO and the mission's propulsion unit, called the Mercury Transfer Module (MTM).

The mission is made up of four spacecraft, which are stacked together for launch.

The Ariane 5 launched "Bepi" into space at "escape velocity" - the speed required for an object to break free of the Earth's gravitational pull.

Until 1985, an engineer figured out the path that a spacecraft should take to reach Mercury.

NASA's Mariner 10 took the first high-quality images of Mercury during its three flypasts in 1974 and 1975.

"(Mercury is) the planet that helped us prove that relativity is real, the planet that is astonishingly hot on its sun-side and yet carries ice in craters at its North Pole", Bill Nye, CEO of the Planetary Society, said in a statement.

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