The BepiColombo Mission To Mercury is Losing Power

BepiColombo is a joint ESA/JAXA mission to Mercury. It was launched in 2018 on a complex trajectory to the Solar System’s innermost planet. The ESA reports that the spacecraft’s thrusters have lost some power.

BepiColombo’s mission is to complete a comprehensive investigation of Mercury’s magnetosphere, magnetic field, and internal and external structure. But travelling around in the inner Solar System is complicated, and the BepiColombo spacecraft will use more energy getting to Mercury than it takes to get to Pluto. The spacecraft will perform nine planetary flybys before reaching its destination at the end of 2025. BepiColombo has already performed one gravity assist at Earth, two at Venus, and five at Mercury. It’ll perform one more at Mercury in January 2025.

The Mercury Transfer Module (MTM) is the part of the spacecraft that delivers a pair of orbiters to Mercury. On April 26th, as the spacecraft was about to execute its next maneuver, the MTM didn’t deliver enough electrical power to its thrusters. A team working on it restored the thrust back to 90% on May 7th. But the MTM still isn’t deliver enough electricity to get back to 100% thrust.

Despite the power problems, the spacecraft is on track to complete its final Mercury flyby. A team is working to maintain the current power level and to understand how the diminished thrust will affect future maneuvers. They’re also working on restoring full power to the thrusters. To facilitate this, the mission’s flight control team at the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany, has arranged additional ground station passes.

BepiColombo employs a solar-electric propulsion system. Two 15-meter-long solar cells gather energy and deliver it to four ion thrusters that use xenon propellant. The thrusters are mounted on gimbals, making them aimable.

This schematic shows the components of BepiColombo’s solar-electric propulsion system minus the solar arrays. There are four T6 gridded ion thrusters mounted on gimbals, three tanks of xenon gas holding 1,400 kg of xenon gas, a high-pressure regulator, four flow control units and two power processing units. The system also includes several metres of high-voltage harness and piping required to connect this complex system together. Image Credit: ESA

BepiColombo consists of three separate spacecraft. The Mercury Transfer Module is kind of like a tugboat delivering two separate orbiters to Mercury. One of the orbiters is the Mercury Planetary Orbiter and it carries 11 scientific instruments, including cameras, several spectrometers, a magnetometer, and others. The other one is the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter, largely built by JAXA. It carries five groups of instruments, including one group that will study the plasma and neutral particles from the planet, its magnetosphere, and the solar wind.

This simple schematic shows the three separate spacecraft that combine to make the BepiColombo mission. Image Credit: ESA

The ESA says that they’ll share more information as it becomes available.

Evan Gough

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