The European spacecraft BepiColombo, built by Airbus Defence and Space as prime contractor with Thales Alenia Space, Joint Venture between Thales (67 %) and Leonardo (33 %), deeply involved in the program as part of the Core Team, has been successfully launched from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana, using an Ariane 5 launch vehicle. The BepiColombo probe, joint mission between the European Space Agency, ESA, and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, JAXA, is now starting its incredible journey to Mercury.
After an adventurous and complex seven-year journey, BepiColombo will help the science community to better understand how the Solar System and how terrestrial planets are formed. Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun and its evolution history is therefore an important piece in the puzzle. Mercury is a planet of extremes and mysteries, and NASA’s Messenger mission has already highlighted that it is very different to what scientists were expecting for a planet in this location. BepiColombo will provide complementary observations to those already collected by Messenger hopefully helping to understand the various open science questions.
The main difficulty of the BepiColombo mission is to deal with very high temperatures which required 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 to be ten times more intense than near Earth. The space probe will have to withstand temperatures greater than 300°C during its mission close to Mercury, with local excursions on the antenna reflector exceeding 400°C , while the spacecraft’s electronics and instruments will have to operate at temperatures ranging from 0° to 40°. It was therefore necessary to develop special materials and devices for all exposed elements, including thermal blankets, thermal radiator, antennas and pointing mechanisms.
Taking up a big challenge, Thales Alenia Space coordinated an industrial group of 35 European companies, developed the telecommunications, thermal control and electric power distribution systems, along with integration and testing of the MPO (Mercury Planetary Orbiter), the MTM (Mercury Transfer Module) and the complete satellite until completion of the launch campaign. Thales Alenia Space also supplied the Deep Space Transponder (DST) in X- and Ka-band, the radiofrequency distribution assembly, the onboard computer, the mass memory and the high-gain antenna, a 1.1-meter steerable dish used for satellite-ground communications, as well as for the mission’s radio science experiment. This dual band antenna is derived from the antenna developed for the highly successful Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn.
“Today we are very proud of this important achievement of our Company – said Walter Cugno Vice President Domain Exploration and Science Responsible – For us, Bepi Colombo launch clearly represents a major technological and industrial achievement allowing Thales Alenia Space to undertake the new challenges of ESA exploration missions (Exomars, Euclid, Juice etc.) and to be more competitive at world level. Thanks to our high level of technological expertise, we bolstered our leadership and established our position as a world-class supplier for advanced space programs. Thales Alenia Space has made a significant contribution to major international space exploration missions and with our capabilities much more can be done in this direction”.
More about contributions
The Italian space agency (ASI) 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, both these two scientific instruments were developed by Thales Alenia Space; and SERENA, an experiment that will study the particle environment using two neutral particle analyzers and two ion spectrometers.
Leonardo is the industrial Prime Contractor for the SIMBIO-SYS instrument which is composed of three channels: a high-resolution camera for a detailed study of Mercury’s geology, a stereocamera for a 3D reconstruction of the entire surface and a hyperspectral camera dedicated to the study of the surface composition. On its remarkable journey, BepiColombo will be guided through space by attitude sensors (star trackers) designed and manufactured by Leonardo, which measure the orientation of the satellite at every moment, providing the on-board computer with the information required for staying on the predefined route.
Telespazio, through its subsidiary Telespazio VEGA Deutschland, has developed key ground segment systems for the mission – such as the Mission Planning System, the Operational simulator and the mission-dedicated Information and Communication Infrastructure – and is involved in mission operations of BepiColombo, ranging from ground station operations, spacecraft operations and flight dynamics.
Co-developed by DLR – Institut für Planetenforschung in Berlin and the Physikalisches Institut at the University of Bern, the first European Laser Altimeter (BELA) will be on board of the Mercury Planetary Orbiter to map the topography of Mercury. Thales Alenia Space in Switzerland led the Swiss contribution, namely for the complete receiver chain and the carrier structure of the instrument including the algorithm for the processing of the detected return pulse, which is providing the information about the distance travelled by the laser and the type of slope which has reflected back the laser to the Mercury Planetary Orbiter.
Bepi Colombo composite: BepiColombo is composed of three interconnected modules for the launch and the approach to the planet Mercury:
• The Mercury Transfer Module (MTM), which supplies the necessary thrust by using electric propulsion
• The Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO), carrying instruments, which will focus on a global characterization of Mercury through the investigation of its interior, surface, exosphere and magnetosphere. In addition, it will test Einstein’s theory of general relativity
• The Mercury Magnetosphere Orbiter (MMO), developed and built by JAXA and carrying five instrument suites dedicated to the study of the planet’s exosphere and magnetosphere, and their interaction with the solar wind and the planet itself
About Thales Alenia Space
Drawing on over 40 years of experience and a unique combination of skills, expertise and cultures, Thales Alenia Space delivers cost-effective solutions for telecommunications, navigation, Earth observation, environmental management, exploration, science and orbital infrastructures. Governments and private industry alike count on Thales Alenia Space to design satellite-based systems that provide anytime, anywhere connections and positioning, monitor our planet, enhance management of its resources, and explore our Solar System and beyond. Thales Alenia Space sees space as a new horizon, helping to build a better, more sustainable life on Earth. A joint venture between Thales (67%) and Leonardo (33%), Thales Alenia Space also teams up with Telespazio to form the parent companies’ Space Alliance, which offers a complete range of services. Thales Alenia Space posted consolidated revenues of 2.6 billion euros in 2017 and has 7,980 employees in nine countries. www.thalesaleniaspace.com