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BepiColombo begins marathon mission to Mercury

Ariane 5 launch
An Ariane 5 rocket rises from its launch pad in Kourou, French Guiana, sending the BepiColombo probe on the first leg of its journey to Mercury. (Arianespace via YouTube)

A mission to the planet Mercury got off to a flashy start with tonight’s launch of an Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket, but there’s a long way to go before the double-barreled BepiColombo probe gets to its destination.

Liftoff from the European Arianespace launch complex in Kourou, French Guiana, came off flawlessly at 10:45 p.m. (6:45 p.m. ET). The $1.5 billion mission, named after the late Italian astrophysicist Giuseppe “Bepi” Colombo, is a joint project of the European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA.

Over the course of seven years, the spacecraft will trace a complex path with an Earth flyby in 2020, two Venus flybys and six Mercury flybys. All those close encounters are carefully designed to slow down BepiColombo’s speed enough to put it into a stable orbit around Mercury in 2025. (It was Colombo who suggested such a series of gravity-assist maneuvers could work for a Mercury mission.)

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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