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Europe's first mission to Mercury is set for lift-off

Key Points
  • The first ever European mission to Mercury will launch on Saturday morning.
  • Led by the European Space Agency, the mission aims to learn more about one of the Solar System’s least explored planets.
  • A British-built spacecraft will travel over 5 billion miles to transport two satellites into Mercury’s orbit.
The planet Mercury

The countdown is underway for Europe's first ever mission to Mercury, with a British-built spacecraft set to be launched to the planet on Saturday.

The mission is due for lift-off from the European space port at Kourou, French Guiana, at 2:45 a.m. London time.

Led by the European Space Agency (ESA), the BepiColombo mission with Japan's JAXA will send two space probes on a 5-billion-mile journey.

Spacecraft BepiColombo, built in the U.K. by Airbus Space and Defence, will transport the satellites — Europe's Mercury Planetary Orbiter and Japan's Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter — into Mercury's orbit. It will be launched into space aboard an Ariane 5 rocket, separating from the missile after 26 minutes to travel the rest of the way solo.

The orbiters are scheduled to reach the planet in late 2025, where they will spend at least a year gathering data on Mercury's composition, geophysics, atmosphere, magnetosphere and geological history.

Unsolved mysteries

Joe Zender, ESA's BepiColombo deputy project scientist, told CNBC that Saturday's launch represented years of work.

"A lot of work has gone into this – the mission has been in development for 11 years," he said.

"Development has been extremely complicated – Mercury is very near to the sun, so (the equipment) will be exposed to high energy particles and temperature differences will be very large, reaching highs of around 400 degrees Celsius and then -100 degrees Celsius in the night sky."

Although this is the first European mission to explore Mercury, NASA has already sent three spacecraft to the planet. The first American mission was launched in the 1970s, a "flyby" project that sent probes to Mercury for around an hour at a time.

"Most of our knowledge of Mercury comes from NASA's Messenger mission that sent spacecraft to Mercury between 2011 and 2015," Zender said, but he noted there were still a lot of mysteries surrounding the planet.

"What we know about Mercury doesn't really fit into our understanding of the solar system," he added.

"The nearer you get to the sun, the less dense the planets are – except Mercury. The thinking of many scientists is that there might have been a catastrophic event that deformed the planet to what we see today, or that it may be not at its place of its origin," before adding "Now we are wondering if maybe our idea of how the solar system was created might have gaps."

The mission – which has cost its European arm around €1.7 billion – will begin to collect data in early 2026, following the spacecraft's scheduled arrival at Mercury in late 2025.

International effort

Nicolas Chamussy, head of space systems at Airbus, told CNBC in an email that the launch was only possible thanks to the participation of many countries.

"This very complex mission is the result of a truly inspiring international cooperation among 83 companies from Europe and Japan," he said.

"All great missions come with challenges: Airbus had to develop sophisticated thermal control solutions and even 'special' solar arrays, capable of tilting 75 degrees away from the Sun to limit the temperature. Now its challenge is to have a successful launch and then to complete the journey safely and deliver the science we're all waiting for."

A multi-billion mile journey

ESA said the mission will be an opportunity to learn more about one of the least explored planets in the Solar System.

"This is an exciting time," Rolf Densing, ESA's director of operations, said in a press release on Wednesday.

"After months of practice, teams here at mission control are eager to see BepiColombo depart from our planet, and they're ready to guide it carefully every day for seven years until it arrives at Mercury."

Planet of extremes

Paolo Ferri, head of mission operations at ESA's European Space Operations Centre, added: "Mercury is a planet of extremes, and getting there requires some equally extreme techniques, navigation solutions and operations expertise.

"Following its departure from Earth, the spacecraft will travel nine billion kilometers (5.6 billion miles) in seven years, completing nine planetary flybys at a top speed of 60 kilometers per second, all in order to reach the least explored planet of the inner Solar System."

Simulations have been carried out to ensure the spacecraft can endure the extreme solar heating it will experience during the orbit. BepiColombo and the equipment it carries have been designed to withstand temperatures in excess of 350 degrees Celsius.

Teams responsible for flying BepiColombo to Mercury completed the final pre-launch "dress rehearsal" on Wednesday in Darmstadt, Germany.

Watch the launch live here from 2:15 a.m. London time.