Pauline Delande, a TAS ASTRO advanced master graduate, attended the launch of BepiColombo at the European Space Operations Centre in Germany. Here is a look back at this unique experience.
During the night of October 19th to 20th, BepiColombo took off from Kourou, French Guiana, with the Ariane 5 rocket, on its way to Mercury, the smallest planet in the Solar System.
The European module “Mercury Planetary Orbiter” (MPO) and the Japanese module “Mercury Magnetosphere Orbiter” (MMO) were on board, their respective objectives being to study the internal/surface structure and the magnetosphere/exosphere of Mercury. In all, 16 instruments were embarked on the 2 modules: 11 for the MPO and 5 for the MMO.
At the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany, the teams got together to follow the launch and to receive the acquisition signal once BepiColombo had separated from the launcher.
The scientific experts (Joe Zander, Joana Rodrigues de Oliveira, Roberta Peron, Ayako Matsuoka and Amedeo Rocchi) who worked on BepiColombo stressed the difficulties of such a mission. Given how close it will get to the Sun, the thermal stress will be very acute (-180°C to +450°C) which required developing new technologies that can be used on other space exploration missions, as well as an interface (“Magnetospheric Orbiter Sunshield and Interface Structure” or MOSIF) designed specifically to protect the Japanese module.
Furthermore, to escape the sun’s strong gravitational pull and to achieve a stable orbit around Mercury, BepiColombo will travel more than 9 billion kilometers, corresponding to 18 orbits around the sun, and will take advantage of gravity assists around the Earth, Venus and Mercury 9 times in order to economize as much fuel as possible and thus to reduce launch weight.
The “Final GO/NOGO rollcall” is overseen by Andrea Accomazzo, Flight Director, who makes sure that each system is ready for launching. All the green lights are flashing.
At 3:45 am (CEST), Ariane 5 lifts off. The two boosters separate approximately 2 minutes later. At 4:12 am (CEST), BepiColombo separates from the upper stage of the rocket and begins its solo journey into space. At 4:20 am (CEST), there is relief in the operations room – Andrea Accomazzo confirms acquisition of the first signal from BepiColombo at the station in New Norcia, Australia. Everyone breaks out in applause.
Hiroshi Imamura, advisor to the Management and Integration Department at JAXA, is congratulatory. “This is an exciting night at the ESOC. BepiColombo is on its way to Mercury. The first signal has been received in Australia. So far, everything is going as planned. But it’s just the beginning; we have a long trip ahead of us.”
Rolf de Groot, head of relations with the ESA Member States, also spoke. “We would like to thank the 22 ESA Member States, the scientific community for the mission’s preparation, European industry and our international partners.”
Since then, BepiColombo has shown off its first selfies from space, confirming that its solar panels and antennas have been successfully deployed.
The 2 modules, which promise to “unlock all the mysteries” of Mercury, will achieve orbit in December 2025, after a trip lasting more than 7 years.