Mercury or bust

Updated Tuesday, 26th June 2007
As UK lead scientist for BepiColombo, the European Space Agency's mission to Mercury, Dave Rothery attends a working group meeting in the Netherlands.

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At a time when most people would think that the only link between Mercury and Europe is to do with the European Parliament’s dastardly plan to scupper the UK mercury barometer trade, here I am at ESTEC (European Space Research and Technology Centre) on the outskirts of Noordwijk, in the Netherlands for a BepiColombo Science Working Group meeting. BepiColombo is Europe’s mission to the planet Mercury, and I’m here in my capacity as UK Lead Scientist for the Mercury Imaging X-ray Spectrometer (MIXS), an experiment to measure and map the abundances of the main chemical elements on Mercury’s surface. I am accompanied by a colleague from Leicester University, from where the MIXS project is led. Representatives from ten other instrument teams are here, and frankly the discussion – when it has not strayed onto the eccentricities of each nation’s funding agencies - has been rather technical for me. Its all about optimising performance so that one instrument does not upset the operations of another, and choosing a mutually acceptable orbit when we get to Mercury. This is still a long way off – 2019 following a 6-year flight after launch in 2013 – but decisions need to be made now while there is still scope to make adjustments.

ESTEC, viewed from the air
ESTEC from the air. The North Sea is beyond the line of dunes at the top left.

Mercury is a fascinating planet. It is the closest one to the Sun, and much smaller than the Earth. It is much denser than it has any right to be, and yet its crust seems to be largely lacking in iron. How this all came about can be determined only by collecting measurements using a wide variety of instruments, and this is something that we on the BepiColombo project hope to do more thoroughly than MESSENGER, a NASA spacecraft that is already on its way.

We will have a Science Working Team meeting in Berlin in September. I keep confusing the names of the Science Working Group and the Science Working Team (I know which one I’m attending, but I can’t remember its name!). The Team is more focussed on what science we want to do, whereas the Group (the meeting I', at right now) is concerned with how we will achieve it. I am looking forwards to the next Science Working Team meeting, which will be in Berlin in September, because that will be my chance to present my ideas about how we might test models for Mercury’s origin and evolution using the measurements that we hope to be able to make.

The next Science Working Group meeting has just been announced for 1-2 April next year, but looking at my diary I see that I am ‘off the hook’ for that one, because I have already accepted an invitation to speak about BepiColombo in the 2008 European Capital of Culture on 1 April. And no, that’s not another of my exotic trips. It will be Liverpool.


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  • picture of David Rothery

    David Rothery

    (Department of Physical Sciences)

    Professor David Rothery is a volcanologist and planetary scientist at The Open University, where he is Professor of Planetary Geosciences within the Department of Physical Sciences. He chairs modules in level 2 planetary science, and ...

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