BepiColombo goes to Mercury

You may have missed the news that the joint Japanese-European (JAXA-ESA) Mission BepiColombo was successfully launched on October 19th 2018 and is now on its way to the planet Mercury, where it will arrive in December 2025.

As it happens I’ve just finished delivering a set of lectures on gravitational dynamics, part of which was devoted to orbital mechanics. One of the problems I worked out during these lectures was the Hohmann Transfer Orbit which is the simplest way to get a spacecraft from Earth to, e.g., Mars (which take 8 to 9 months to reach).

Since the radius of Mercury’s orbit is 0.39 AU (compared with Mars’s 1.52 AU) you might think it would take a similar time to reach Mercury, but designing a trajectory that results in a controlled encounter with Mercury in an efficient manner is much harder than for Mars (largely because Mercury is moving much faster). The solution to this problem involves a series of encounters with VEarth, Venus and Mercury each of which results in an adjustment to BepiColombo’s orbit until it finally encounters the target planet at a reasonable speed. This approach takes over seven years, but it saves an enormous amount on fuel – using the gravitational boost from planetary encounters instead of firing rockets.

Here’s a video showing this complex but fascinating example of orbital mechanics in action:

p.s. the dates in the video correspond to the originally planned launch date of 5th October, so are off by a couple of weeks.

One Response to “BepiColombo goes to Mercury”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    I wonder how wide the search space for orbits was. Did they consider slingshotting round outer planets or is there a theorem that inwards is always best?

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