In 2015, the first ever European mission to Mercury is set to launch off from planet Earth. Named after the 20th century astronomer, BepiColombo will improve our understanding of the smallest and least explored terrestrial planet in our Solar System.
Mission to Mercury
The mission is made possible by world-leading ion propulsion technology from QinetiQ, which offers significant benefits over conventional chemical systems.
QinetiQ’s ion engines, which are powered by electrical energy, use 90% less propellant (Xenon) than chemical counterparts and the thrust can be controlled more effectively. Xenon is also less bulky stored in its liquid form, which means that the satellite has a lower mass. A smaller propellant mass also means that other scientific instruments can be carried on board.
The smoother and more controlled throttling capability opens up a whole new possibility for space missions and interplanetary programmes. This QinetiQ technology can also be applied to Earth-orbiting satellites, such as telecommunications and navigation satellites. These have a tendency to drift off course due to the effects of the Earth’s atmosphere and gravity. Conventionally, satellites have depended on chemical propulsion systems to move the satellite into the correct orbital position but this can now be performed more efficiently with ion propulsion thanks to QinetiQ.
Unlocking the secrets of planet Earth
The GOCE satellite, which was launched by the European Space Agency in 2009, has created the first ever gravity map of the Earth. QinetiQ’s ion thrusters are compensating for the significant atmospheric drag experienced at the low altitudes involved in this challenging mission
Data from the mission is helping to build a better understanding of sea-level changes, shifts in ice flows, ocean behaviour and the geological processes behind earthquakes.
In this sense, ion propulsion opens up the prospect of a whole new era of exploration and discovery for scientists.
QinetiQ boasts the premier ion thruster facility in Europe and a team with unrivalled expertise in gridded ion thruster design. See QinetiQ’s ion thrusters on the BBC’s Sky at Night (December 2012) at: www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01p65ql