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.)