Mercury rising for Dundee space technology

Hardware developed in Dundee will this weekend embark on a seven-year, 48 million-mile mission to Mercury.

When the BepiColombo mission to Mercury launches from Kourou, French Guiana on Saturday 20 October it will be equipped with SpaceWire, a computer network developed by University of Dundee and spin-out company STAR-Dundee that connects instruments, processors and other onboard systems.

BepiColombo is a joint endeavour between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). It is the first European mission to Mercury, the smallest and least explored planet in the inner Solar System, and the first to send two spacecraft to make complementary measurements of the planet’s dynamic environment at the same time.

According to Professor Steve Parkes, Chair of Spacecraft Electronic Systems at the University and Chief Technology Officer at STAR-Dundee, the mission promises to uncover some of the mysteries of Mercury.

“Only a few spacecraft have visited Mercury in the past so little is known about the planet,” he said. “BepiColombo actually comprises three spacecraft – two planetary orbiters and a mother spacecraft that will carry them to Mercury’s orbit – and SpaceWire features on all three.

“One of these was developed by ESA to orbit and map the complete surface of Mercury to high resolution while the other is a Japanese craft that will measure Mercury’s magnetic field and other properties because the planet is believed to be rich in iron and have interesting magnetic properties.

“This is a very tricky mission and one of the big challenges is that Mercury is relatively close to Sun. Temperatures can vary from between -173 Celsius at night to 427 Celsius during the day so spacecraft have to withstand these extreme temperatures as well as high levels of radiation.

“Our involvement has effectively been to provide the nervous system of the spacecraft. SpaceWire was developed with input from international spacecraft engineers and has become the standard for use in space missions.”

The ambitious seven-year flight will make one flyby of Earth, two at Venus, and six at Mercury, before entering the latter’s orbit.

It will build on the discoveries and questions raised by NASA’s Messenger mission, which orbited the planet between 2011 and 2015, to provide the best understanding to date of the Solar System’s innermost planet. BepiColombo will provide information about solar system evolution in general by investigating how planets orbiting close to their stars in exoplanet systems form and evolve.

BepiColombo is just one of more than 100 spacecraft to use SpaceWire technology, and Professor Parkes will watch the launch with the same sense of pride that he always does when he sees the fruits of his labour leave Earth.

“I have been working in this area for 25 years and it never stops being exciting,” he said. “Some of the missions that SpaceWire features on are completely amazing and help to further our understanding of the entire universe as well as life here on Earth.”

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