Elsa Montagnon, BepiColombo Spacecraft Operations Manager, discusses the latest mission to Mercury, its complexity, and what scientists hope to discover.
Elsa Montagnon is an interplanetary spacecraft operations expert. She earned her engineering degrees from the Ecole Centrale Paris and Technical University of Munich. Montagnon joined the European Space Agency (ESA) in 1999. Before her work as the BepiColombo spacecraft operations manager, Montagnon was the flight operations system engineer on ESA’s groundbreaking Rosetta mission. The European Space Agency (ESA) is Europe’s premier, advanced agency that serves as the entrée to space. The ESA formats and oversees the development of Europe’s space capability to track progress and make sure that the investment in space is properly benefitting the people of Europe as well as the world community.
Montagnon discusses ESA’s collaboration with a partner Japanese space agency, JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. She gives an overview of the BepiColombo’s mission: to explore planet Mercury. She states that Mercury was visited twice before by man-made machines, missions that introduced many questions for researchers as would be expected. She details the importance of putting satellites into different orbits to maximize their findings. Their mission intends to launch a lower orbit survey of the chemical composition of Mercury’s surface, etc., with JAXA’s higher orbit survey satellite that will analyze the magnetosphere and other important issues. A magnetosphere is a region of space that surrounds an astronomical object in which various charged particles are manipulated or impacted by that object’s overall magnetic field.
She explains some of the difficulties with a mission to Mercury, due to its close proximity to the sun and the complex trajectory needed to make the journey there. She describes the year-by-year trajectory that must be made in order to approach Mercury, specifically discussing energy and orbit. Survival itself is a challenge in such a high-temperature environment. Near Mercury, the energy from the sun is approximately ten times that of what we experience on Earth. As such, much research and effort goes into coatings and thermal blankets that are absolutely necessary to protect any craft that is approaching Mercury due to the excessive temperature.
The space-engineering expert discusses some of the extra advantages of a Mercury mission, such as the ability to study solar flares and gather new information about the sun. Montagnon explains that the latest mission has literally just begun and that the Mercury arrival will not happen until 2025. She discusses the technical aspects of some of the instruments that will be utilized during the mission, and how they track the mission and the data. Montagnon states that there is a full laboratory on board that allows for exploration and discovery, as scientists seek to take full advantage of every aspect of the mission from beginning to end, from capturing never-before seen views of Venus and other important mission activities.