Although the BepiColombo mission to Mercury that launched on Oct. 19 has a seven-year journey ahead of it, the spacecraft has already accomplished a key milestone.
On December 2nd, the spacecraft made its first maneuver using two of its ion thrusters, a procedure that followed weeks of meticulous testing. Since the procedure was a success, it means that the most powerful electric-propulsion engine system in history is now up and running.
In a statement released by ESA, Elsa Montagnon, Spacecraft Operations Manager for BepiColombo, said that electric propulsion technology is very new and extremely delicate, meaning that BepiColombo’s four thrusters had to be thoroughly checked after the launch, by slowly turning each on, one by one, and closely monitoring their functioning and effect on the spacecraft.
That testing also had to be done at a time when the spacecraft would be continuously visible from Earth, as well as point its antennae toward our home planet so that they could adequately monitor the tests.
Later this month, the thrusters will commence the series of 22 long burns that will be a requirement for it to reach Mercury. The entire journey will range 5.6 billion miles (9 billion kilometres).
BepiColombo’s powerful ion thrusters are situated on the Mercury Transfer Module, which is carrying the mission’s two science orbiters to Mercury. Once the assembly arrives in 2025, the three spacecraft will separate, and the orbiters will say goodbye to the electric engines and their strange blue glow.