Mission Control ‘restlessly’ tries to save a spacecraft from Mercury

A complex mission to Mercury that began its epic room The six-year voyage encountered critical thrust problems that auditors say could jeopardize plans to study the nearest planet Sun.

BepiColombo, a joint European and Japanese mission, is on track to reach Mercury on September 5 for the first of three crucial flybys aimed at putting the robotic spacecraft on course around the planet next year. In October 2025, two scientific probes were launched – one operated by the European Space Agency and the other by the Japan Aerospace Research Agency – would detach from a module and then probe the planet’s surface and magnetic field.

But whether those scientific operations can still take place as planned is uncertain. During a maneuver on April 26, the solar-powered electric propulsion module failed to provide sufficient power to the spacecraft’s thrusters. according to ESA. About eleven days later, engineers had reduced the spacecraft’s thrust almost to its previous level, but still 10 percent lower.

“A team of experts is working restlessly to understand the cause of the problem and its further impact on the rest of the route,” Camille Bello, a spokesperson for ESA, told Mashable.

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the planet Mercury

Mercury is perhaps the most underexplored of the rocky worlds in the solar system.
Credit: NASA/JHU Applied Physics Lab/Carnegie Inst. Washington

To adapt to the spacecraft’s lower thrust level, the team extended the duration of the thrust arc, allowing the spacecraft to get back on track. the planned flybys between September and January 2025. Engineers are still trying to figure out what led to the problem, scrutinizing every last bit of available data.

“We know we are dealing with an issue with the availability of electrical power from the Mercury Transfer Module,” Bello said. “The electric propulsion motors themselves are fine.”

Mashable speed of light

Mercury is perhaps the most underexplored of the rocky worlds in the solar system. Hot and harder to reach than even Saturn, it has not enjoyed the level of exploration that other planets around the sun have received. Only two previous spacecraft, both NASA missions have flown to the Swift Planet, nicknamed for its fast orbit around the sun.

BepiColomboLaunched in October 2018 on an Ariane 5 rocket from a French spaceport in South America, attempting to study the ice-filled polar craters, the planet’s magnetic field and the enigmatic ‘cavities’ on its surface. The outer shell of Mercury is covered with ancient lava flowslittered with space rocks for the past four billion years.

By expanding knowledge of Mercury’s composition, atmosphere and magnetism, scientists can better understand how rocky, Earth-like planets formed.

But this is not the first difficult period for BepiColombo. Last year, mission controllers conducted a significant course correction to compensate for previous failure of the bow thruster. Without this, BepiColombo would have gone about 15,000 miles off orbit and ended up on the wrong side of the planet, according to ESA.

Explanation of the difficulty of reaching Mercury

The mission’s many years of consecutive flybys are necessary because it is difficult to get into Mercury’s orbit.
Credit: ESA

The mission many years of consecutive flybys are necessary because of how difficult it is to reach Mercury. To enter orbit around the planet, the spacecraft must fly slowly enough to be pulled in by Mercury’s gravity. Too fast and it will fly by. The problem is that as the spacecraft gets closer to the sun, it goes faster like a bicycle downhill.

Slowing down in the vacuum of space is no easy feat. The careful choreography of swinging around planets is a way for the spacecraft to burn energy without carrying excessive amounts of fuel that would otherwise be the case making the spacecraft too heavy to launch in the first place.

If mission control can sufficiently resolve the spacecraft’s energy problem, science operations could begin in spring 2026.

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