Bepicolombo is Europe’s first mission to planet mercury, and Atos is part of it
CTO Space & Avionics
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Posted on: 13 December 2019
The planet Mercury, named after ‘the messenger of the Gods’, is the smallest and one of the least understood planets in our solar system. Only two other missions have explored Mercury – Mariner 10 in the 1970’s and the MESSENGER orbital probe thirty years later. These early missions helped map much of the surface of the planet, as well as discovering many interesting facts about Mercury:
- Although closest to the Sun, it is only the 2nd hottest planet (Venus is hotter)
- Given it has little to no atmosphere, the poles of Mercury remain perpetually extremely cold
- The surface of Mercury is heavily cratered and rippled due to asteroids and solar wind impact
- The planet’s composition is extremely dense – the most dense planet in our solar system
- Mercury emits a surprisingly strong magnetic field given its relatively small mass
These first two pioneering missions to Mercury both eventually ran out of fuel and therefore ceased practical operations. But many puzzling questions remained to be addressed about Mercury, which led to the BepiColombo project, being humankind’s third space mission to Mercury.
According to the European Space Agency (ESA), BepiColombo has been designed to provide the measurements necessary to study and understand the composition, geophysics, atmosphere, magnetosphere and history of Mercury. In particular, the mission has the following scientific objectives:
- Investigate the origin and evolution of a planet close to the parent star
- Study Mercury as a planet: its form, interior structure, geology, composition and craters
- Examine Mercury's vestigial atmosphere (exosphere): its composition and dynamics
- Probe Mercury's magnetized envelope (magnetosphere): its structure and dynamics
- Determine the origin of Mercury's magnetic field
- Investigate polar deposits: their composition and origin
- Perform a test of Einstein's theory of general relativity
On October 18th the European-Japanese BepiColombo mission blasted off on an Ariane 5 rocket heading to Mercury, a voyage that will take several years to reach its celestial destination. This mission is unique in that it will spawn two orbital modules circling Mercury – one exploring its physical surface and composition, while the other exploring its exosphere, auras and magnetic fields. To view a time-lapse video of the assembly, preparation and blast-off of the BepiColombo, click here.
But before a satellite blasts off to orbit, it is essential that all the satellite’s vital systems are tested thoroughly while it is still on the ground. Given their experience in offering an entire range satellite testing solution, Atos was selected as a partner in the preparation and testing prior to blast-off. Atos EGSE is the name of the comprehensive suite of electrical satellite testing solutions which were used for the BepiColombo mission.
Radio frequency calibration
Without ‘bullet-proof’ radio sub-systems, the satellite is unable to communicate and cannot complete its mission. To make sure this never happens, Atos tests and calibrates their radio frequency sub-systems with an industry-leading degree of precision using ‘ranging’. Ranging is the determination of the position of a spacecraft using the RF communication signals.
BepiColombo and Atos’ radio frequency testing © ESA-B.Guillaume
Power sub-systems integration testing - © ESACNES Ariane space Optique vidéo du CSG – J. Odang
Power subsystems testing
A multi-year trip needs power optimization in order to endure the distance – a satellite vitally depends on a power supply and distribution. Atos provided the solution to test the powering, monitoring and performance of the satellite’s power subsystems during assembly and integration, as well as on the launch pad just prior to lift-off.
For BepiColombo’s mission, orbiter solar arrays were deployed to run simulations. They are integrated very tightly with the satellite. The Atos system tests the power to the satellite while it is integrated and proven on the ground in the cleanroom, and in a vacuum chamber. The testing also allows synchronous event data recording across all measurement channels for quick analysis of any suspicious behavior.
The launch power system is only a couple of meters away from the main rocket propulsion system
Power subsystems testing racks
The “RF suitcases”
The so-called ‘RF Suitcases’ are used to check compatibility and simulate the basic characteristics of the command and orientation data of the spacecraft with the ground stations. The satellite testing system is traditionally called an RF Suitcase, because it should be able to travel to test locations and contains space qualified hardware.
Atos provided a comprehensive suite of electrical satellite testing solutions to ensure that the satellite’s radio, payload and power sub-systems are in perfect condition at launch-time in order to work flawlessly during their entire lifespan in-orbit.
Systems are ‘go’
By all accounts, these vital testing procedures were successful in preparing for launch readiness. “All went well obviously, and we are very happy to be part of this mission”, says Hermann Wolf, Project Manager of Atos. "We are very pleased with the performance of BepiColombo and proud of the work of all teams who made such a challenging mission a reality", says Ulrich Reininghaus, ESA BepiColombo project manager.
Banner Image: Copyright ESA/BepiColombo/MTM – CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO