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British space probe nears blast-off to explore planet nearest the Sun

Unravelling the mysteries of Mercury: British space probe nears blast-off to explore the planet nearest the Sun

  • A British-built spacecraft will blast off for Mercury later this month 
  • BepiColombo will be the first spacecraft to use electrical ion thrusters 
  • During seven-year trip to Mercury its ion thrusters will be operating for 4.5 years
  • The resulting ‘plasma’ is fired out of the thruster at 90,000mph 

A British-built spacecraft will blast off for Mercury in an adventurous mission later this month.

BepiColombo will be the first spacecraft to use electrical ion thrusters to travel to the planet – and report back on what it finds.

And it uses engines that use so little fuel that compared to a petrol engine, it would achieve 17.8 million miles to the gallon.

A British-built spacecraft will blast off for Mercury in an adventurous mission later this month. BepiColombo will be the first spacecraft to use electrical ion thrusters to travel to the planet 

During BepiColombo’s seven-year trip to Mercury its ion thrusters will be operating for 4.5 years.

The resulting ‘plasma’ is fired out of the thruster at 90,000mph.

Although the speed of the emerging plasma is rapid, the force it produces is tiny. But it can be maintained with high efficiency over a long period of time.

Two engines will fire at any one time producing 290 millinewtons of thrust, the equivalent of about an ounce of force.

MERCURY: THE MYSTERY PLANET 

For all its bland ‘dead’ appearance, Mercury is a very interesting place

It is the smallest planet in our solar system – only slightly larger than the Earth’s moon.

On its sunward half, the planet sizzles at a temperature of 510°C (950°CF while its night side maintains –210°C (–346°F).

It is the closest planet to the sun at a distance of about 36 million miles (58 million km) or 0.39 AU.

Mercury has  a solid iron core that measures more than half the planet’s diameter. Earth, by contrast, has a solid core that’s just 9.5 per cent of its overall girth.

One day on Mercury takes 59 Earth days. Mercury makes a complete orbit around the sun (a year in Mercury time) in just 88 Earth days.

 

The high-tech propulsion units work by ‘ionising’ inert xenon gas – knocking an electron off the gas atoms to give them a positive charge.

Dr Jerry Bolter, project manager at Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage, where the thrusters were assembled, said: ‘We recognised very early on that for BepiColumbo to do what we wanted it to do and get from here to Mercury we needed to have a very efficient propulsion system. If we relied on chemical propulsion then we’d need 17 tonnes of propellant.’

‘The ion drive needs just 581 kilograms of propellant and does the equivalent of 17.8 million miles to the gallon.’

Four T6 ion engines supplied by British defence and technology company QinetiQ are fitted to the craft’s power unit, the Mercury Transfer Module (MTM).

They work by ‘ionising’ inert xenon gas – knocking an electron off the gas atoms to give them a positive charge.

Ion drives have been used before to power Earth orbiting satellites and deep space missions to asteroids.

But BepiColombo is the first interplanetary mission to rely on the technology.

One probe was built by satellite makers Airbus Space and Defence at its assembly centre in Stevenage, Herts. The other was constructed in Japan.

The mission, launching on October 20, has cost an estimated 1.6 billion Euros (£1.4 billion).

Unlike any other interplanetary spacecraft in history, BepiColombo carries a futuristic ion electric propulsion drive, also designed and built in the UK.

During BepiColombo’s seven-year trip to Mercury its ion thrusters will be operating for 4.5 years. The resulting ‘plasma’ is fired out of the thruster at 90,000mph

Although the speed of the emerging plasma is rapid, the force it produces is tiny. But it can be maintained with high efficiency over a long period of time. Two engines will fire at any one time producing 290 millinewtons of thrust, the equivalent of about an ounce of force

2011 data from Nasa’s Messenger probe revealed that Mercury had a violent, volcanic past. Pictured is a topographic map of Mercury constructed from data taken by the Messenger probe. The colours indicate elevation, with purple indicating low-lying regions and red meaning higher elevations

Four ion engines on the Mercury Transfer Module (MTM) transporting the orbiters will provide thrust by electrically ejecting a ‘plasma’ of charged xenon gas.

Although the force an ion motor produces is very small – far less than that of a chemical rocket – it can be kept firing for a long period of time.

The four-tonne spacecraft will be launched into an ‘escape trajectory’ orbit by Esa’s most powerful rocket, the Ariane 5, from the European spaceport at Kourou, French Guiana.

HOW IT WILL GET TO MERCURY

BepiColombo’s two orbiters, Japan’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter and ESA’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter, will be carried together by the Mercury Transport Module. 

The carrier will use a combination of electric propulsion and multiple gravity-assists at Earth, Venus and Mercury to complete the 7.2 year journey to the Solar System’s mysterious innermost planet 

Once at Mercury, the orbiters will separate and move into their own orbits to make complementary measurements of Mercury’s interior, surface, exosphere and magnetosphere. 

The information will tell us more about the origin and evolution of a planet close to its parent star, providing a better understanding of the overall evolution of our own Solar System.

Scientists will first seek to launch what they termed ‘a technological masterpiece’ on October 5, 2018 from Kourou in French Guiana on the back of an Ariane rocket, with an eight-week launch window if there are any difficulties.

‘Arrival at Mercury is first foreseen … on December 5, 2025,’ added Reininghaus.

It will then set off on a seven-year 8.5 billion kilometre (5.2 billion mile) journey involving a complex series of gravity-assist fly-bys around the Earth, Venus, and Mercury.

As it circles towards the sun, BepiColombo will use its ion drive and the fly-bys not to build up speed but to brake and overcome the star’s powerful gravity.

After playing tag with Mercury six times while crossing the planet’s orbital path, the spacecraft will arrive at its destination in 2025.

Esa’s Mercury Planet Orbiter (MPO) and the Japanese space agency Jaxa’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO) will then separate to study the little-known sun-baked world for up to two years.

The high-tech propulsion units work by ‘ionising’ inert xenon gas – knocking an electron off the gas atoms to give them a positive charge (Mission controllers at the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany, as they prepare for the BepiColombo launch)

The latest theory contradicts the view that a large impact early in Mercury’s history may have destroyed most of its outer layers

MPO will make global maps of Mercury’s surface chemistry and geological features, while MMO investigates the planet’s internal structure and magnetic field.

One of MPO’s key instruments, the Mercury Imaging X-ray Spectrometer (Mixs), was designed and built at the University of Leicester.

Only two spacecraft have previously visited Mercury. Nasa’s Mariner 10 flew past the planet three times in 1974-75, and the American space agency’s Messenger probe orbited Mercury from 2011 to 2015, taking photos of the surface.

Dr Jerry Bolter, project manager at Airbus Defence and Space, said: ‘The only other spacecraft to go in orbit around Mercury was Nasa’s Messenger. That was a very, very light spacecraft and no-where near as capable as Bepi will be. The scientists describe Messenger as the hors d’oeuvre and Bepi as the main course.’

Describing the spacecraft’s ion drive, supplied by British defence tech company QinetiQ and installed at Airbus, he said: ‘If we relied on chemical propulsion then we’d need 17 tonnes of propellant.

‘The ion drive needs just 581 kilograms of propellant and does the equivalent of 17.8 million miles to the gallon.’

Two ion engines run at any one time, producing a maximum thrust of 290 millinewtons – the equivalent of about an ounce of force. They will be actively firing for four-and-a-half years, more than half the total journey time.

BepiColombo, a joint mission between Europe and Japan, is due to launch in 2016 and reach Mercury in 2024. Pictured here is the BepiColombo Mercury Planetary Orbiter being constructed

while MMO investigates the planet’s internal structure and magnetic field. One of MPO’s key instruments, the Mercury Imaging X-ray Spectrometer (Mixs), was designed and built at the University of Leicester

Dr Bolter added: ‘I’ve been working on this project since 2006. It will be very emotional I think. It’s a fundamental milestone getting the spacecraft off the ground. Then you start worrying: will we get communication? Will we get power? But it’s also exciting.’

A key challenge for mission scientists was coping with searing temperatures of more than 350C.

In Greek mythology, Icarus flew too close to the sun and paid the ultimate price. Likewise, BepiColumbo’s orbiters would face destruction without adequate protection.

Among the measures employed were a heat shield, multi-layers of novel ceramic and titanium insulation, and ammonia-filled ‘heat pipes’ that conduct heat to a radiator face always pointed away from the sun.

Only the MMO will spin to reduce overheating on any one surface.

‘We have an environment inside the spacecraft where the electronics can run at normal temperature,’ said Dr Bolter.

Mixs scientist Professor Emma Bunce said: ‘There are some interesting quirks about Mercury that we still don’t understand. Messenger told us a great deal but also raised more questions.

‘It’s extremely exciting but also a little bit terrifying.’

BepiColombo is named after the late Guiseppe ‘Bepi’ Colombo, an Italian scientist and engineer from the University of Padua who played a leading role in the 1974 Mariner 10 mission to Mercury. 

BepiColombo will be the first spacecraft to use electrical ion thrusters to travel to another planet.

Four T6 ion engines supplied by British defence and technology company QinetiQ are fitted to the craft’s power unit, the Mercury Transfer Module (MTM).

They work by ‘ionising’ inert xenon gas – knocking an electron off the gas atoms to give them a positive charge.

The resulting ‘plasma’ is attracted by electrostatic forces to a grid with an opposite negative charge and fired out of the thruster at 90,000mph.

Although the force produced is tiny, it can be maintained with high efficiency over a long period of time.

Four T6 ion engines supplied by British defence and technology company QinetiQ are fitted to the craft’s power unit, the Mercury Transfer Module (MTM)

During BepiColombo’s seven-year trip to Mercury its ion thrusters will be operating for 4.5 years.

Two engines will fire at any one time producing 290 millinewtons of thrust, the equivalent of about an ounce of force.

Unusually, the spacecraft will use energy not to speed up but to put the brakes on as it ‘falls’ towards the sun.

It will achieve this both by firing the ion thrusters in the direction of travel, and by means of a complex series of fly-bys past the Earth, Venus and Mercury.

Ion drives have been used before to power Earth orbiting satellites and deep space missions to asteroids.

But BepiColombo is the first interplanetary mission to rely on the technology.

Dr Jerry Bolter, project manager at Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage, where the MTM was assembled, said: ‘We recognised very early on that for BepiColumbo to do what we wanted it to do and get from here to Mercury we needed to have a very efficient propulsion system. If we relied on chemical propulsion then we’d need 17 tonnes of propellant.

‘The ion drive needs just 581 kilograms of propellant and does the equivalent of 17.8 million miles to the gallon.’

He said the drive unit was ‘very complicated’ involving a lot of intricate computer-controlled electronics to control fuel rates and pressure.  

BepiColombo, Europe’s first mission to Mercury, will use a host of instruments on two orbiters to unravel the planet’s mysteries.

After launch, the spacecraft will take seven years to reach the scorching planet closest to the sun.

It will then deploy two probes packed with sophisticated technology.

The Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO), built in Britain, will study Mercury’s surface and composition while the Japanese Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO) focuses on the electromagnetic environment surrounding the planet.

The Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO), built in Britain, will study Mercury’s surface and composition while the Japanese Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO) focuses on the electromagnetic environment surrounding the planet

A key instrument on the MPO, the Mercury Imaging X-ray Spectrometer (Mixs), was developed and built at the University of Leicester.

The 13kg (28lb) metre-long device consists of two X-ray telescopes, one designed to capture images of the surface and the other to analyse its composition.

The planet is bombarded by high energy sub-atomic particles from the sun, causing the surface to ‘fluoresce’ and emit X-rays.

Written into the rays are the ‘fingerprints’ of atoms, and analysing them provides information about what the planet is made of.

Mixs scientist Professor Emma Bunce said there were ‘interesting quirks’ about Mercury that scientists still did not fully understand.

Nasa’s 2011 Messenger mission to Mercury supplied some answers but ‘also raised more questions’.

One of the planet’s peculiarities was its unusually large iron core, which takes up much more room than the iron hearts at the centre of Earth, Mars and Venus.

Prof Bunce said: ‘It suggests that something dramatic happened early in Mercury’s evolution, like a massive impact with another body that stripped away most of the mantle.

‘However, one thing Messenger taught us is that there are many volatile substances on Mercury’s surface. This is a puzzle because the heat of a major impact should have burned these volatiles away.


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‘One of the things we’re looking at is a much more detailed study of volatile substances like sodium, potassium and chlorine.’

Another Mercury mystery is the fact that X-ray fluorescence occurs on the planet’s ‘dark side’, despite the lack of sun.

Scientists believe they must be generated by a different process from the one on the sunlit side.

‘The X-rays on the dark side appear to be organised and channelled by the magnetic field,’ said Prof Bunce. ‘Electrons from the magnetosphere are channelled along, impact the surface, and fluoresce X-rays.

‘It’s a bit like an aurora on the surface. That’s really exciting – it’s a really unusual scenario in the solar system that we can study.’

To protect Mixs from the searing 350C heat, the instrument’s finely crafted lenses are coated in aluminium, and the frame holding the optics in place is covered by a thin layer of 22 carat gold.

Prof Bunce added: ‘We want to understand how the solar system works and how it was formed. Mercury is a place of extremes; a small planet and the planet closest to the sun. Knowing how it has survived will help us piece together a bigger picture of the solar system and our place in it.’

The Messenger mission was limited by the fact that it used one orbiter and only covered Mercury’s northern hemisphere.

BepiColombo would map the entire surface, said Prof Bunce.

She was sure the wealth of science and technological spin-offs from the mission justified its 1.6 billion euro (£1.4 billion) price tag.

‘A billion pounds is what it takes to build a fairly short stretch of motorway, say from Leicester to Birmingham, and we’re trying to answer fundamental questions about our solar system,’ she said.

Prof Bunce admitted to having mixed feelings as the countdown to the launch continued.

‘It’s extremely exciting but also a little bit terrifying,’ she said.

‘There’s so much work our engineering and technical team has put into it over the past decade – all that blood, sweat and tears invested in that instrument sitting on the top of a rocket. It will be great to see it get on its way.’ 

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Science

Miniature worms will be blasted into space in a matchbox sized capsule

Thousands of miniature worms will be blasted into space in a matchbox sized capsule in a bid to find a cure for age-related muscle loss

  • In total, 360,000 one millimetre long roundworms will be launched into orbit 
  • The extreme environment of space causes many negative health changes 
  • Astronauts can lose up to 40 per cent of their muscle after just six months 
  • Worms will help scientists analyse their rate of spaceflight-induced muscle loss
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Worms will be sent into space to be studied aboard the International Space Station (ISS) in a bid to study muscular dystrophy. 

More than 360,000 one millimetre long roundworms will be launched into orbit in a container no bigger than a matchbox.

The experiment, the first developed by the UK Space Agency to be tested aboard the ISS, hopes to analyse the worms’ rate of spaceflight-induced muscle loss.

The extreme environment of space triggers a number of negative health changes, with astronauts typically losing around 40 per cent of their muscle after six months.

Scientists believe that combating the health impacts for astronauts in space could  lead to a greater understanding of the ageing process on Earth – and might help researchers improve treatment of diabetes and ageing muscle loss.

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Thousands of one millimetre long roundworms (pictured) will be launched into orbit in a container no bigger than a matchbox by scientists hoping to analyse their rate of spaceflight-induced muscle loss

The UK Space Agency, which is based in Swindon, Wiltshire, has chosen to use the microscopic Caenorhabditis elegans species for the experiment.

The species, known as C. elegans, shares many of the same essential biological characteristics as humans.

In fact, we share almost 80 per cent of the same genes with C. elegans, which are highly similar at the metabolic level, and have muscles that act much like our own.

As such, the worms will be affected by the same biological changes in space, including alterations to muscle and the ability to use energy.

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These worms are also ideal specimens to send to space because they are small, quick to mature, and easy to keep alive.  

Thousands of purpose-bred nematodes have now been sent to the US and will be launched on the Space X Dragon capsule in November as part of the programme titled Molecular Muscle Experiment.

Sue Horn, head of space exploration at the space agency, said: ‘I’m really pleased to have experiments ready to be conducted on the ISS.

‘It was difficult to get this approved as only the best ideas are selected.

‘We have put a lot of research into finding this specific species for the experiment and we believe this will show great results.’ 


The tiny nematodes (pictured) have been sent to the US and will be launched on the Space X Dragon capsule in November as part of the programme titled Molecular Muscle Experiment


The microscopic worms, C elegans, being used in the experiment share many of the essential biological characteristics as humans

Ms Horn added: ‘Understanding changes to provide opportunities to understand how humans age on earth and develop countermeasures for this is essential to the test. 

‘If this works it will help in so many ways with contributing to medicine on earth and it will also help astronauts.’

Scientists have previously looked to C. elegans to study genetics. 

MP Sam Gyimah, the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, said: ‘It’s not every day that you hear of the potential health benefits of sending worms into space, but this crucial project which is also the first of its kind, could lead to better treatment for muscular conditions for people on Earth as well as improving the wellbeing of our astronauts.’


This is the project logo for the UK mission to send worms to space. The worms will be bred again at the space station and samples of medicine will be administered to them before they are frozen and brought back down to earth

The worms will be bred again inside the International Space Station.

Samples of medicine to combat muscle loss will be administered to the worms before they are frozen and brought back down to earth.

Experiments are expected to take around ten days and will be carried out over three months. Preparations to send worms into space in November have already started.

The worms are in liquid bacterial feed and are sealed in a special gas permeable plastic bag. These bags will soon be housed in a special incubator.

The worms reproduce in space and after growing to adults (a process which takes around 6.5 days) they will be frozen until returning to Earth.

The Molecular Muscle Experiment is the first UK-led experiment to take place on the International Space Station.

UK scientists are able to carry out this research thanks to the UK Space Agency’s membership to the European Space Agency’s exploration programme, which contributes to the costs of the International Space Station.

The UK joined the scheme back in 2012.


The worms, which were found in a rubbish tip, will be blasted into space in the UK’s first experiment on the International Space Station (pictured)

Tim Etheridge, Senior Lecturer at the University of Exeter, said; ‘Worms are, perhaps surprisingly, a very good model for human muscle maintenance. 

‘At the molecular level, both structurally and metabolically they are highly similar to that of humans and from a space flight specific perspective – they provide a lot of practical advantages.’

They are very small, quick to grow, cheap and easy to maintain which makes them good to work with, he said.  

‘Spaceflight represents the accelerated human model of the ageing condition and so, hopefully, by understanding the molecular changes it may provide the opportunity to understand human ageing on earth’.

Libby Jackson, Human Spaceflight and Microgravity Programme Manager at the UK Space Agency said: ‘This is the first of many exciting experiments heading to the International Space Station from the UK, thanks to our contributions to ESA.

‘The Molecular Muscle Experiment will provide knowledge that will benefit our understanding of muscle aging and help to improve life on Earth.’

WHAT IS THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION?

The International Space Station (ISS) is a $100 billion (£80 billion) science and engineering laboratory that orbits 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.

It has been permanently staffed by rotating crews of astronauts and cosmonauts since November 2000.

The space station is currently home to two Russians, three Americans and one Japanese. 

Research conducted aboard the ISS often requires one or more of the unusual conditions present in low Earth orbit, such as low-gravity or oxygen.


The International Space Station (file photo) is a $100 billion (£80 billion) science and engineering laboratory that orbits 250 miles (400 km) above Earth

ISS studies have investigated human research, space medicine, life sciences, physical sciences, astronomy and meteorology.

The US space agency, Nasa, spends about $3 billion (£2.4 billion) a year on the space station program, a level of funding that is endorsed by the Trump administration and Congress.

A U.S. House of Representatives committee that oversees Nasa has begun looking at whether to extend the program beyond 2024.

Alternatively the money could be used to speed up planned human space initiatives to the moon and Mars.

 

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Lifestyle

Wisconsin school district blasted by ACLU for ‘sexist’ dress code enforcement

A female student was reportedly criticized by a teacher for wearing a “tank top and shorts” to summer school.

 (iStock)

One Wisconsin school district may have relaxed its dress code for the 2018-2019 year after complaints from the school community, but the ACLU says that the administration is enforcing the new regulations in a “sexist” way.

On Sept. 11, WUWM reported that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wisconsin was putting the squeeze on Kenosha Unified School District school board officials over an incident that reportedly occurred in June during summer school. According to the outlet, a female student was criticized by a teacher for wearing a “tank top and shorts” to gym class.

For context, the Kenosha Unified School District school board added tank tops, yoga pants and leggings to its list of permitted sartorial items after backlash from students and parents last year that such stipulations were discriminatory against female students, BBC reports. The school district encompasses 24 elementary schools, five middle schools, three high schools and five choice schools, six charter schools and one specialty school, as per their website.

Though the new dress code featured on TMJ4 News mandates that bottoms must be “mid-thigh length and cover all private body parts at all times” and allows tank tops with “straps [that] are at least one inch in width,” the trouble apparently was not yet over.

“A female student had been shamed in front of her classmates and threatened to be sent home two days in a row for wearing a tank top and shorts to a summer gym class,” ACLU Wisconsin staff attorney Asma Kadri Keeler recounted to WUWM. Upon further investigation, Kadri Keeler reported she found the policies regarding dress code enforcement for Kenosha staffers to be lacking.

“Our position is that this is primarily a sexist gender issue,” Kadri Keller further told Yahoo Lifestyle. “These incidents that are cropping up all around the country that various ACLU affiliates and ACLU national are involved in revolve around girls and young women.”

Moving forward, the ACLU has issued a statement urging the Kenosha school district to clarify the enforcement measures for their new dress code policies and protect students from body shaming and harassment if they face a violation. 

Representatives for the ACLU of Wisconsin and Kenosha Unified School District did not immediately return Fox News’ request for additional comment on the story.

Janine Puhak is an editor for Fox News Lifestyle. Follow her on Twitter at @JaninePuhak

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