BepiColombo spacecraft faces thruster glitch

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BepiColombo Spacecraft Faces Glitch

The BepiColombo spacecraft, a joint effort between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), has encountered technical issues prior to its arrival at Mercury. Due to a malfunction, the spacecraft’s thrusters are not operating at full capacity, leading to concerns about its upcoming maneuvers, including a planned Mercury flyby later this year.

Mission Objectives

BepiColombo aims to become the second mission to orbit Mercury, providing valuable insights into the smallest planet in our solar system. Comprising two probes and a “Mercury Transfer Module,” the spacecraft seeks to unravel the mysteries of Mercury’s extreme temperatures, polar ice deposits, weak magnetic field, and enigmatic surface features such as hollows.

The arduous 48-million-mile journey to Mercury involves a total of nine planetary flybys before BepiColombo can be inserted into Mercury’s orbit. However, a recent glitch experienced on April 26 has added complexity to the mission, raising questions about its successful completion.

Technical Challenges

Launched on October 20, 2018, from ESA’s launch facility in Kourou, French Guiana, atop an Ariane 5 rocket, BepiColombo’s troubles emerged as it geared up for its fourth Mercury flyby on September 5, 2024. The spacecraft’s Transfer Module, crucial for propulsion using solar arrays and an electric system, failed to provide sufficient power to the thrusters during a critical maneuver.

Although efforts have been made to restore partial power to the thrusters, they are currently operating at only 90% of their capacity. ESA is diligently working to maintain stable thrust levels and evaluate the spacecraft’s ability to execute upcoming maneuvers with reduced propulsion. The root cause of the power drop is under investigation, with the possibility of restoring full power still being explored.

Mission Timeline

Throughout its journey, BepiColombo has completed flybys of Earth in April 2020, Venus in October 2020 and August 2021, and Mercury in October 2021, June 2022, and June 2023. Future flybys of Mercury are scheduled for September 5, December 2, 2024, and January 9, 2025, with the mission expected to conclude on May 1, 2028, after ten Mercury years in orbit.

Despite the technical setback, ESA has yet to disclose any impact on the mission’s timeline or objectives. As scientists and engineers continue to troubleshoot the thruster glitch, the success of the BepiColombo mission remains a top priority for international space agencies.

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Chris Jones

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