The European spacecraft BepiColombo, built by Airbus Defence and Space as prime contractor, is undergoing final functional tests at the Thales Alenia Space plant in Turin, Italy. It will then be shipped to ESA’s European Space Research and Technology center in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, to start environmental tests.
BepiColombo is a joint mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, JAXA. The primary goal of this ambitious mission is a detailed study of the planet Mercury and its environment. The launch is scheduled for mid-2016 from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana, using an Ariane 5 launch vehicle.
Thales Alenia Space is part of the Core Team, and coordinates 35 European companies on the work package under its responsibility. In particular, Thales Alenia Space is in charge of the telecommunications, thermal control and electric power distribution systems, along with integration and testing of the satellite and support services for the launch campaign. Thales Alenia Space is supplying the X- and Ka-band transponders, onboard computer, mass memory and the high-gain antenna, a 1.1-meter dish used for satellite-ground communications, as well as for the mission’s radio science experiment. This antenna is derived from the antenna developed for the highly successful Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn.
The Italian space agency and industry are also making a significant contribution to the mission, with responsibility for four out of the 11 experiments: SIMBIO-SYS, an integrated system of cameras for the observation and characterization of the planet’s surface; the ISA ultra-sensitive accelerometer; the MORE radio science experiment, using the satellite’s Ka-band transponder; and SERENA, an experiment that will study the particle environment using two neutral particle analyzers and two ion spectrometers.
“BepiColombo is one of the most ambitious missions planned by ESA, and has required the development of special technologies to deal with the severe conditions on Mercury,” said Elisio Prette, Chairman and CEO of Thales Alenia Space Italia. “We are proud to have reached this significant program milestone, clearly reflecting our ability to meet very daunting technology challenges, even for space exploration. Thales Alenia Space, working through the Italian, European and American space agencies, has made a significant contribution to major international space exploration missions for the last two decades and more. Our contributions reflect the company’s high level of technological expertise, bolstering our leadership and establishing our position as a world-class supplier for advanced space programs.”
One distinctive feature of the BepiColombo mission is the development of special high-temperature technologies. Mercury is only one-third of the distance to the Sun, compared with the Earth, and the solar radiation in orbit around Mercury is estimated at ten times more intense than near Earth. The space probe will have to withstand temperatures greater than 300°C during its approach to Mercury, with local excursions on the antenna reflector of up to 400°C or more, while the spacecraft’s instruments will have to work at temperatures ranging from 0° to 40°. It was therefore necessary to develop special materials and devices for all exposed elements, including thermal blankets, antennas, solar cells and pointing mechanisms.
BepiColombo is actually a composite spacecraft that comprises three modules: the Mercury Transfer Module (MTM), which will propel the spacecraft to Mercury using electric propulsion; the Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO), carrying the European observation instruments; and the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO), developed by the Japanese space agency JAXA to observe the planet’s magnetosphere.