Released under the GIC Framework
QinetiQ today announced that it has signed a £23m contract with EADS Astrium for the supply of the solar-electric propulsion system for European Space Agency’s (ESA's) BepiColombo spacecraft mission to the planet Mercury.
BepiColombo, due to launch in 2014, is Europe's first mission to Mercury – the inner most planet of the solar system where temperatures can reach 470 °C. Because Mercury is so close to the Sun, the mission presents ESA with a range of daunting technical challenges. Not only is solar radiation ten times stronger on Mercury, but it also takes six years to get there and requires a large amount of energy to brake the spacecraft against the Sun’s gravitational pull.
"Mercury is the planet closest to the Sun, making it hard to get to, so an advanced electric propulsion system is an essential part of meeting the technical challenge," said Prof. David Southwood, ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration. "However the goal of the mission is very important – Mercury has regularly confounded planetary scientists with its exceptional properties and that makes it a grand scientific challenge."
QinetiQ's solar-electric propulsion system comprises four T6 ion thrusters that have been selected because they are around ten times more efficient than chemical thrusters that have traditionally been used as propulsion systems on spacecraft. The electric propulsion system will be complemented by several planetary gravity-assist manoeuvres with BepiColombo "swinging by" Venus, as well as the Earth and Mercury to benefit from their gravitational fields.