Prepare For Lift-off! BepiColombo Launches For Mercury

Artist illustration of the BepiColombo orbiters, MIO and Bepi, around Mercury (JAXA).

This Friday (October 19) at 10:45pm local time in French Guinea, a spacecraft is set to launch for Mercury. This is the BepiColombo mission which will begin its seven year journey to our solar system’s innermost planet. Surprisingly, the science goals for investigating this boiling hot world are intimately linked to habitability.

Mercury orbits the sun at an average distance of 35 million miles (57 million km); just 39% of the distance between the sun and the Earth. The planet therefore completes a year in just 88 Earth days.

The close proximity to the sun puts Mercury in a 3:2 tidal lock, meaning the planet rotates three times for every two orbits around the sun. (By contrast, our moon is in a 1:1 tidal lock and rotates once for every orbit around the Earth.) With only a tenuous atmosphere to redistribute heat, this orbit results in extreme temperatures between about -290°F and 800°F (-180°C to 427°C). The overall picture is one of the most inhospitable of worlds, so what do we hope to learn from this barren and baked land?

BepiColombo is a joint mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). It consists of two orbiters, one built by each space agency. The mission is named after Giuseppe “Bepi” Colombo, an Italian mathematician who calculated the orbit of the first mission to Mercury —NASA’s Mariner 10— such that it could make repeated fly-bys of the planet.

When Mariner 10 reached Mercury in the mid-1970s, it made an astonishing discovery:  the planet had a weak magnetic field. The Earth also has a magnetic field that is driven by movement in its molten iron core.

However, with a mass of only 5.5% that of the Earth, the interior of Mercury was expected to have cooled sufficiently since its formation for the core to have solidified and jammed the breaks on magnetic field generation. This is thought to have happened to Mars, which is significantly larger than Mercury with a mass around 10% that of the Earth. So how does Mercury hold onto its field?

The discoveries only got stranger with the arrival of NASA’s MESSENGER mission in 2011. MESSENGER discovery that Mercury’s magnetic field was off-set, with the center shifted northwards by a distance equal to 20% of the planet’s radius.

The mysteries also do not end with Mercury’s wonky magnetic field. The planet’s density is very high, suggesting a much larger iron core relative to its volume compared to the Earth.

The thin atmosphere is mysteriously rich in sodium and there also appears to be more volatiles such as water ice than is expected for a planet that dances so close to the sun. All this points to a formation and evolution that we do not yet understand.

Artist impression of the JAXA orbiter, MIO, around Mercury (credit: JAXA).

The two BepiColombo orbiters will sweep around the planet to pick at these questions. The pair will get a global view of Mercury, in contrast to MESSENGER whose orbit did not allow a good view over the southern hemisphere.

“Getting data from the southern hemisphere to complement the details from MESSENGER is a logical next step to investigating the nature of Mercury’s magnetic field,” commented Masaki Fujimoto, Deputy Director General at JAXA’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Sciences (ISAS).

The European orbiter is the “Mercury Planetary Orbiter” (MPO), with “Bepi” as a nickname. Bepi will take a relatively close orbit around Mercury, with an altitude between 300 – 930 miles (480 – 1500 km). The main focus of the probe is the planet’s surface topology and composition, as well as a precise measurement of the gravitational field that reveals information about Mercury’s internal structure.

The Japanese orbiter is the “Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter” (MMO) and was given the nickname “MIO” through a public contest held earlier this year and translates to “waterway” in Japanese.

Masaki Fujimoto, Deputy Director of ISAS, JAXA.

“Water related names received many votes,” explained Go Murakami, BepiColombo MIO project scientist. “Because in the Japanese language, Mercury is written ‘水星’ (suisei) meaning ‘water planet’.”

The focus for MIO is Mercury’s magnetic field and the interaction with the solar wind; a stream of high energy particles that comes from the sun. This requires exploration of the region around Mercury and MIO will take a correspondingly wider orbit than Bepi, with an altitude between 250 – 7500 miles (400 – 12,000km).

While Mercury itself is interesting, understanding the planet’s history has wide ranging implications for the search for habitable worlds around other stars.

The easiest exoplanets to spot are those on close orbits around dim red dwarf (also known as M-dwarf) stars. As they are far less luminous than our sun, even planets on close orbits around red dwarfs may receive a similar level of radiation to the Earth, placing them in the so-called “habitable zone.” An important example of this are the TRAPPIST-1 worlds, whose three habitable-zone planets have orbits lasting 6, 9 and 12 Earth days.

Go Murakami, BepiColombo MIO project scientist

However, the close proximity to the star comes with risks. Red dwarfs are particularly rambunctious, emitting flares that can strip the atmosphere of an orbiting planet. Mars is a classic example of this process.

Even orbiting a relatively quiet star at a distance further from the Earth, the thin atmosphere of Mars is being pulled away by the solar wind. Unless the TRAPPIST-1 worlds and those like them can protect their gases with a magnetic field, their surfaces may always be sterile.

While we know the Earth avoids this fate with its own magnetic field, it is not clear whether it would fare as well closer to the sun or with a weaker magnetic field. Mercury with its weak field and in the full blast of the solar wind offers an extreme comparison point.

A second insight Mercury could provide is that of the origin of rock. Planetary formation theories suggest there must have been mixing of dust grains in the planet-forming disc that circled the young sun. This would have shuffled up the elements that were condensing into solids at different temperatures within the disc. The exact nature and result of the shuffling remains a big question, yet it controls the composition of inner rocky planets that includes the Earth.

“The subject of planetary origins is very intriguing to me,” remarks Fujimoto. “JAXA’s asteroid sample return mission, Hayabusa2, is asking the question of where the water on Earth came from. BepiColombo will ask the complimentary question of how our planet’s rocky body was made.”

Together, the two orbiters cover a wide range of science of addressing these questions. They can also work as a pair by taking simultaneous measurements from different locations. This is particularly useful for analyzing time-varying events and also allows the planetary magnetic field to be separated out from the magnetic field carried by the solar wind.

The launch date for BepiColombo has been pushed back several times over the last few years. However, this has allowed for engineering improvements, and discoveries such as the TRAPPIST-1 planets have only added to the excitement of the mission.

“We are not unhappy about the launch delays,” said Fujimoto. “What has happened in planetary science during that period has made the expectation for BepiColombo even higher!”

The journey to the innermost planet is not a quick one. Due to arrive in 2025, the long duration is actually not due to distance but the need to brake. The pull from the sun’s gravity at such close proximity makes it hard for BepiColombo to slow sufficiently for the two probes to enter Mercury’s orbit.

The spacecraft therefore does nine planetary fly-bys; one by the Earth in April next year, then two for Venus and six for Mercury. The gravity of the planet can be used to slow down the spacecraft and allow Bepi and MIO to begin their main mission.

To my complete delight, ESA have started an animated series of shorts for the mission, similar to the cartoons for the Rosetta mission to comet 67P in 2014. These informative little videos depict the adventures of Bepi, MIO and the Mercury Transfer Module (MTM) that provides the propulsion to reach Mercury.

In addition to the videos, all three probes (and the mission itself) have twitter accounts @BepiColombo (main mission account), @esa_bepi (character account for Bepi which tweets in English), @jaxa_mmo (character account for MIO that tweets in English and Japanese) and @esa_mtm that tweets in… I’ll let you find that out!

The live launch feed from ESA is due to begin at 21:38 EDT on Friday, October 19. Good luck, BepiColombo!


Know Thy Star, Know Thy Planet: How Gaia is Helping Nail Down Planet Sizes


Gaia’s all-sky view of our Milky Way and neighboring galaxies. (ESA/Gaia/DPAC)



(This column was written by my colleague Elizabeth Tasker, now at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Institute of Space and Astronautical Sciences (ISAS).  Trained as an astrophysicist, she researches planet and galaxy formation and also writes on space science topics.  Her book, “The Planet Factory,” came out last year.)


Last month, the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission released the most accurate catalogue to date of positions and motions for a staggering 1.3 billion stars.

Let’s do a few comparisons so we can be suitably amazed. The total number of stars you can see without a telescope is less than 10,000. This includes visible stars in both the northern and southern hemispheres, so looking up on a very dark night will allow you to count only about half this number.

The data just released from Gaia is accurate to 0.04 milli-arcseconds. This is a measurement of the angle on the sky, and corresponds to the width of a human hair at a distance of over 300 miles (500 km.) These results are from 22 months of observations and Gaia will ultimately whittle down the stellar positions to within 0.025 milli-arcseconds, the width of a human hair at nearly 680 miles (1000 km.)

OK, so we are now impressed. But why is knowing the precise location of stars exciting to planet hunters?

The reason is that when we claim to measure the radius or mass of a planet, we are almost always measuring the relative size compared to the star. This is true for all planets discovered via the radial velocity and transit techniques — the most common exoplanet detection methods that account for over 95% of planet discoveries.

It means that if we underestimate the star size, our true planet size may balloon from being a close match to the Earth to a giant the size of Jupiter. If this is true for many observed planets, then all our formation and evolution theories will be a mess.

The size of a star is estimated from its brightness. Brightness depends on distance, as a small, close star can appear as bright as a distant giant. Errors in the precise location of stars therefore make a big mess of exoplanet data.

An artist’s impression of the Gaia spacecraft — which is on a mission to chart a three-dimensional map of our Milky Way. In the process it will expand our understanding of the composition, formation and evolution of the galaxy. (ESA/D. Ducros)

This issue has been playing on the minds of exoplanet hunters.

In 2014, a journal paper authored by Fabienne Bastien from Vanderbilt University suggested that nearly half of the brightest stars observed by the Kepler Space Telescope are not regular stars like our sun, but actually are distant and much larger sub-giant stars. Such an error would mean planets around these stars are 20 – 30% larger than estimated, a particularly hard punch for the exoplanet community as planets around bright stars are prime targets for follow-up studies.

Previous improvements in the accuracy of the measured radii and other properties of stars have already proved their worth. In 2017, a journal paper led by Benjamin Fulton at the University of Hawaii revealed the presence of a gap in the distribution of sizes of super Earths orbiting close to their star. Planets 20% and 140% larger than the Earth appeared to be common, but there was a notable dearth of planets around twice the size of our own.

Super Earth planets with orbits of less than 100 days seem to come in two different sizes. (NASA/Ames/Caltech/University of Hawaii. (B.J.Fulton))

The most popular theory for this gap is that the peaks belong to planets with similar core sizes, but the planets with larger radii have deep atmospheres of hydrogen and helium. This would make the planets belonging to the smaller radii peak true rocky worlds, whereas the second peak would be mini Neptunes: the first evidence of a size distinction between these two regimes.

This split in the small planet population was spotted due to improved measurements of planet radii based on higher precision stellar observations made using the Keck Observatory. With a gap size of only half an Earth-radius, it had previously gone unnoticed due to the uncertainty in planet size measurements.

Both the concern of a significant error in planet sizes and the tantalizing glimpse at the insights that could be achieved with more accurate data is why Gaia is so exciting.

Launched on December 19, 2013, Gaia is a European Space Agency (ESA) space telescope for astrometry; the measurement of the position and motion of stars. The mission has the modest goal of creating a three-dimensional map of our galaxy to unprecedented precision.

Gaia measures the position of stars using a technique known as parallax, which involves looking at an object from different perspectives.

Parallax is easily demonstrated by holding up your finger and looking at it with one eye open and the other closed. Switch eyes, and you will see your finger moves in relation to the background. This movement is because you have viewed your finger from two different locations: the position of your left eye and that of your right.

Parallax is the apparent shift in the position of stars as the Earth orbits the sun. It can be used to determine distances between stars. (ESA/ATG medialab)

The degree of motion depends on the separation between your eyes and the distance to your finger: if you move your finger further from your eyes, its parallax motion will be less. By measuring the separation of your viewing locations and the amount of movement you see, the distance to an object can therefore be calculated.

Since stars are far more distant than a raised finger, we need widely separated viewing locations to detect the parallax. This can be done by observing the sky when the Earth is on opposite sides of its orbit. By measuring how far stars seem to move over a six month interval, we can calculate their distance and precisely estimate their size.

This measurement was first achieved by Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel in 1838, who calculated the distance to the star 61 Cygni. Bessel estimated the star was 10.3 light years from the Earth, just 10% lower than modern measurements which place the star at a distance of 11.4 light years.

However, measuring parallax from Earth can be challenging even with powerful telescopes. The first issue is that our atmosphere distorts light, making it difficult to measure tiny shifts in the position of more distant stars. The second problem is that the measured motion is always relative to other background stars. These more distant stars will also have a parallax motion, albeit smaller than stars closer to Earth.

As a result, the motion measured and hence the distance to a star, will depend on the parallax of the more distant stars in the same field of view. This background parallax varies over the sky, leaving no way on Earth of creating a consistent catalogue of stellar positions.

The Gaia spacecraft’s billion-pixel camera maps stars and other objects in the Milky Way. (C. Carreau/ESA)

These two conundrums are where Gaia has the advantage. Orbiting in space, Gaia simply avoids atmospheric distortion. The second issue of the background stars is tackled by a clever instrument design.

Gaia has two telescopes that point 106.4 degrees apart but project their images onto the same detector. This allows Gaia to see stars from different parts of the sky simultaneously. The telescopes slowly rotate so that each field of view is seen once by each telescope and overlaid with a field 106.4 degrees either clockwise or counter-clockwise to its position. The parallax motion of stars during Gaia’s orbit can therefore be compared both with stars in the same field of view, and with stars in two different directions.

Gaia repeats this across the sky, linking the fields of view together to globally compare stellar positions. This removes the problem of a parallax measurement depending on the motion of stars that just happen to be in the background.

The result is the relative position of all stars with respect to one another, but a reference point is needed to turn this into true distances. For this, Gaia compares the parallax motion to distant quasars.

Quasars are black holes that populate the center of galaxies and are surrounded by immensely luminous discs of gas. Being outside our Milky Way, the distance to quasars is so great that their parallax during the Earth’s orbit is negligibly small. Quasars are too rare to be within the field of view of most stars, but with stellar positions calibrated across the whole sky, Gaia can use any visible quasars to give the absolute distances to the stars.

What did these precisely measured stellar motions do to the properties of the orbiting planets? Did our small worlds vanish or the intriguing division in the sizes of super Earths disappear?

This was bravely investigated in a journal paper this month led by Travis Berger from the University of Hawaii. By matching the stars observed by Kepler to those in the Gaia catalogue, Berger confirmed that the majority of bright stars were indeed sun-like and not the suspected sub-giant population. However, the more precise stellar sizes were slightly larger on average, causing a small shift in the observed small planet radii towards bigger planets.

Planet radii derived from the new Gaia data and the Kepler (DR25) Stellar Properties Catalogue. Red points are confirmed planets while black points are planet candidates. Bottom panel shows the ratio between the two data sets. There is a small shift towards larger planets in the new Gaia data. (Figure 6 in Berger et al, 2018.)

The same result was found in a parallel study led by Fulton, who found a 0.4% increase in planet radii from Gaia compared with the (higher precision than Kepler, but less precision than Gaia) results using Keck.

The papers authored by Berger and Fulton investigated the split in super Earth sizes on short orbits, confirming that the two planet populations was still evident with the high precision Gaia data. Further exploration also revealed interesting new trends.

Fulton noticed that two peaks in the super Earth population appear at slightly larger radii for planets orbiting more massive stars. This is true irrespective of the level radiation the planets are receiving from the star, ruling out the possibility that more massive stars are simply better at evaporating away atmospheres on bigger planets. Instead, this trend implies that bigger stars build bigger planets.

Models proposed by Sheng Jin (Chinese Academy of Sciences) and Christoph Mordasini (the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy) in a paper last year proposed that the location of the split in the super Earth population could be linked to composition.

Planets made of lighter materials such as ices would need a larger size to retain their atmospheres, compared to planet cores of denser rock. If the planet size at the population split marks the transition from large rocky worlds without thick atmospheres to mini-Neptunes enveloped in gas, then it corresponds to the size needed to retain that gas.

Berger suggests that the gap between the planet populations seen in the new Gaia data is best explained by planets with an icy-rich composition. As these planets all have short orbits, this suggests these close-in worlds migrated inwards from a much colder region of the planetary system.

The high precision planet radii measurements from Gaia seem to leave our planet population intact, but suggest new trends worth exploring. This will be a great job for TESS, NASA’s recently launched planet hunter that is preparing to begin its first science run this summer. Gaia’s astrometry catalogue of stars will be ensuring we get the very best from this data.