The Journey of a Spacecraft to Mercury

spacecraft to mercury

Mercury can enter the environment via volcanoes, burning coal, oil or trash burning or from mining and processing gold. Once released into the air it can come tumbling back down via rain or sleet and pollute soil and water supplies.

BepiColombo was developed by the European Space Agency and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency to explore Mercury orbit from space. Once in orbit around Mercury, bepiColombo will eventually split apart after making its long voyage towards it.


In 2005, MESSENGER rocketed past Earth at 24,000 miles per hour (38,600 km/h), collecting data that would eventually take it into Mercury orbit. Two Venus flybys further decelerated its course while helping conserve fuel and more quickly calibrate its scientific toolkit.

Mercury’s searing heat and radiation, however, were no match for MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging), launched into space in 2008. A titanium sun shade provided protection from solar heating while gamma-ray and neutron sensors searched for signs of water ice on its surface.

In 2011, MESSENGER successfully entered Mercury orbit. For its one-year primary mission, this spacecraft intensively studied this mysterious planet which lies three times closer to our Sun than Earth. MESSENGER revealed evidence of large fault scarps on Mercury as proof that it shrunk during formation. Furthermore, its findings provided insight into both Mercury’s development and that of inner Solar System overall.


BepiColombo, an international mission between the European Space Agency and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, will send two probes into Mercury orbit in 2024 for comprehensive study of all its aspects – core, surface processes, magnetic field and exosphere.

Mercury, our innermost and fastest-orbiting planet in our solar system, requires special maneuvers to reach it. BepiColombo will use weak stability boundary gravitation capture technology – popularised by Italian mathematician-engineer Giuseppe “Bepi” Colombo when explaining why Mercury rotates three times every two orbits around the Sun – to complete an Orbit Insertion Manoeuvre (MOI). This manoeuvre will involve passing past Earth in April 2020, Venus between 2020-2021 as well as Mercury itself six times between 2021-2025.

BepiColombo instruments – Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) and Magnetospheric Orbiter (MIO) – will provide unprecedented accuracy when measuring Love Numbers, topography, libration amplitude and tides on Mercury. Furthermore, their measurements will shed light on space weathering processes which alter surface properties across our Solar System planets such as Mercury.

Mariner 10

At the time of Mariner 10’s launch in 1973, missions to our Sun’s planets had been underway for over a decade. Mariner 10 was the first probe to visit Mercury directly and send back data and pictures about this small, dense world that alternates between baking hot and freezing cold as it slowly rotates around.

Mariner 10 was noted for its engineering achievements, such as using Venus’ gravity to perform a “gravity-assist maneuvre,” an increasingly common method for reaching other planets. Mariner 10 also successfully mapped part of Mercury’s cratered, moonlike surface and discovered that it has its own magnetic field.

BepiColombo will build on Mariner’s legacy and expand our understanding of Mercury by orbiting two spacecraft at once and mapping almost the entirety of Mercury at one time, such as finding smooth plains within Caloris basin. Both spacecraft will orbit at roughly equal times for added insight into this small planet.

Solar System Exploration

Mercury is one of the least understood planets in our inner Solar System, yet Sumerians had knowledge about it as far back as 5,000 BCE! Even so, NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft only began orbiting it in 2011 (though Sumerians knew of its existence long before that!). Scientists still do not fully understand its large iron core – although they have some theories but need more data in order to come up with definitive answers!

Mariner 10 was modified using an early theory attributed to Italian mathematician Giuseppe Colombo that allowed it to sail three times past Mercury instead of just once as originally planned, saving fuel while providing scientists with twice as much scientific data about it. This maneuver also demonstrated how Mercury is shrinking as its cooling core solidifies, decreasing volume and contracting over time. But due to being so close to the Sun, studying Mercury requires extra care from telescopes that study it – notably Hubble Space Telescope has never observed Mercury due concerns that doing so would damage its sensitive optics!

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