UK-Built Sensor Used for Mercury Spacecraft

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UK-Built Sensor Used for Mercury Spacecraft

 18th May 2015

A sophisticated X-ray based sensor suite developed by the University of Leicester, in conjunction with Airbus Defence & Space, will be integrated into the BepiColombo Mercury probe.

AerospaceAdThe spacecraft, due for launch in 2017, will travel to the smallest planet in our solar system and drop into low orbit to scan its surface. The Mercury Imaging X-ray Spectrometer (MIXS) will be mounted to the probe ahead of its 7 year journey.

Only the third craft to travel to Mercury, BepiColombo is a joint mission between the European Space Agency and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) that will take a year to complete. Enduring temperatures in excess of 350 degrees Celsius, the probe ­made up of the Mercury Planetary Orbiter and the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter will build on the work of NASA’s Messenger probe.

BepiColombo s cruise configuration

Image courtesy of the ESA.

Messenger’s 4 year mission mapped the surface of Earth’s smallest cousin and in so doing discovered frozen water and evidence of volcanic activity. Europe’s MPO probe which is being built at Airbus’ facility in Stevenage will have 11 instruments mounted on it which will study Mercury’s physical make-up including geology, composition and its unstable atmosphere.

The sensor developed with the University of Leicester will be tasked with studying X-rays from the planet’s surface which are generated by fluorescence as more intense X-rays from the Sun bombard the planet. It’s hoped that these X-rays will reveal, amongst other things, how Mercury was formed.

‘The team have worked incredibly hard over many years and in particular throughout the last year, to design and build such a complex instrument,’ said principal investigator Emma Bunce, Professor of Planetary Plasma Physics at Leicester. ‘It has been a very challenging project from a technical point of view, as the instrument needs to survive extreme temperatures at the orbit of Mercury, perilously close to the Sun.’

AerospaceAdBepiColombo is a mission that is trailblazing several new UK technologies. The Mercury Transfer Module that will carry both orbiters to the planet will be propelled by a solar-electric propulsion ‘ion drive’ developed by QinetiQ; this will actually slow the craft down against the pull of the Sun’s gravity well so that it can enter orbit instead of overshooting and falling into the Sun. This will be the ESA’s first use of this technology outside the Earth-moon system. Three other instruments on the MPO also have UK technical input.

‘The UK’s considerable skill in new technology development is not only allowing us to explore our solar system but is securing valuable contracts for UK industry whilst often creating products that can also be applied to other industries,’ said David Parker, chief executive of the UK Space Agency.

We are extremely proud to be associated with Airbus and QinetiQ as they enter the final phase of this amazing project.

If QinetiQ or Airbus are organisations you’re interested in working for register your details today. 

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