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Joint Mission To Mercury By Europe-Japan Satellite Launches

The mission is an expensive one. It's estimated the costs borne by the European Space Agency and the Japanese space agency amount to about 1.65 billion euros.

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TESS, rover, NASA, mercuryKeplar, NASA
TESS, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, is shown in this conceptual illustration obtained by Reuters on March 28, 2018. NASA sent TESS into orbit from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. VOA

Two satellites developed in Europe and Japan are on their way to the Sun’s closest planet Mercury. It is likely to take them seven years to reach their destination.

The joint endeavour BepiColombo left Earth on an Ariane rocket that launched out of South America on Friday, the BBC said.

The probes lifted clear of the Kourou spaceport in Atlantic coast of French Guiana at 10.45 p.m. on Friday.

Mission controllers based in Darmstadt, Germany, would spend much of Saturday talking to the spacecraft, to confirm they were properly configured for the long cruise ahead.

Coming close on the heels of NASA’s Parker Solar Probe that was launched in August, Bepi is aimed at finding more about Mercury that “doesn’t really fit with our theories for how the Solar System formed”, said Bepi scientist Professor Dave Rothery from the UK’s Open University.

Parker Solar Probe, NASA, mercury
This illustration from NASA shows the Parker Solar Probe spacecraft approaching the sun. VOA

“We can’t understand our planet fully unless we’re able to explain Mercury that has an oversized iron core — 60 per cent of its mass,” Rothery said.

Science has not yet explained why the planet only has a thin veneer of rocks. Bepi’s high-resolution data should bring us nearer to an answer, the BBC reported.

It’s the first time the European and Japanese space agencies (Esa and Jaxa) have set out for Mercury. The Americans have already been there, briefly with the Mariner 10 probe in the 1970s, and with the Messenger orbiter earlier this decade.

Messenger discovered that water-ice is held inside some of Mercury’s shadowed craters, and that its crust contains a lot of graphite (pencil lead).

Bepi will build on those. The new mission carries twice as much instrumentation and will get closer for longer.

Mercury’s dense body does not reflect its initial form. It’s possible the planet began life much further and later migrated inwards, mission scientist Suzie Imber from Leicester University.

Mercury
We know so little about the planet Mercury… The BepiColombo mission will try to unravel some of its mysteries. Flickr

 

“It’s also got huge cliffs, many kilometres tall. And those cliffs formed as Mercury shrank. We call them wrinkle ridges,” Imber said.

It is possible to directly reach Mercury in a matter of months, but the speed picked up by a spacecraft falling into the Sun’s deep gravity would make it very hard to stop at the planet, the BBC report said.

Bepi will take a more circuitous route. It will fly past Earth, Venus and Mercury itself, using the tug of their gravity to bleed off speed, so that by 2025 the mission can gently slot into position.

The toughest prospect ahead is the heat. At just 58 million km from the Sun, working at Mercury is like being in a pizza oven, Imber said.

The sides of the probes in direct sunlight will have to cope with temperatures over 400 degrees Celsius. Even those surfaces facing away from the Sun have to be protected.

Coping strategies include covering the MMO in thick blankets of insulation material made from titanium and ceramics. “The environment is extremely hostile,” explains Esa mission controller Elsa Montagnon.

Mercury
Solar system. Pixabay

 

“On Mercury, we get 10 times the solar energy we get on Earth. But then from the illuminated side of Mercury, we get about four times what we get on the Earth. So, the spacecraft are continually in a heat sandwich,” Montagnon said.

The mission is an expensive one. It’s estimated the costs borne by the European Space Agency and the Japanese space agency amount to about 1.65 billion euros.

Additionally, national space agencies in Europe have paid for the instrumentation on the MMO, taking the overall budget above 3 billion euros.

Also Read: Another Space Telescope Shuts Down: NASA

This number covers the full lifecycle of the mission, from its approval (2007) to its termination (late 2020s).

Engineers have had a torrid time developing the technologies to keep Bepi safe so close to the Sun. Delays have kept on adding to the price. (IANS)

Next Story

Heart Rate Gets Altered in Space But Returns to Normal on Earth

Upon return to Earth, space-flown heart cells show normal structure and morphology

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Heart Rate
Relatively little is known about the role of microgravity in influencing human Heart Rate at the cellular level. Pixabay

Heart Rate gets altered in space but return to normal within 10 days on Earth, say researchers who examined cell-level cardiac function and gene expression in human heart cells cultured aboard the International Space Station (ISS) for 5.5 weeks.

Exposure to microgravity altered the expression of thousands of genes, but largely normal patterns of gene expression reappeared within 10 days after returning to Earth, according to the study published in the journal Stem Cell Reports.

“We’re surprised about how quickly human heart muscle cells are able to adapt to the environment in which they are placed, including microgravity,” said senior study author Joseph C. Wu from Stanford University.

These studies may provide insight into cellular mechanisms that could benefit astronaut health during long-duration spaceflight, or potentially lay the foundation for new insights into improving heart health on Earth.

Past studies have shown that spaceflight induces physiological changes in cardiac function, including reduced heart rate, lowered arterial pressure, and increased cardiac output.

But to date, most cardiovascular microgravity physiology studies have been conducted either in non-human models or at tissue, organ, or systemic levels.

Relatively little is known about the role of microgravity in influencing human cardiac function at the cellular level.

Heart Rate
Heart Rate gets altered in space but return to normal within 10 days on Earth, say researchers who examined cell-level cardiac function and gene expression in human heart cells cultured aboard the International Space Station (ISS) for 5.5 weeks. Pixabay

To address this question, the research team studied human induced pluripotent stem cell-derived cardiomyocytes (hiPSC-CMs). They generated hiPSC lines from three individuals by reprogramming blood cells, and then differentiated them into heart cells.

Beating heart cells were then sent to the ISS aboard a SpaceX spacecraft as part of a commercial resupply service mission.

Simultaneously, ground control heart cells were cultured on Earth for comparison purposes.

Upon return to Earth, space-flown heart cells showed normal structure and morphology. However, they did adapt by modifying their beating pattern and calcium recycling patterns.

In addition, the researchers performed RNA sequencing of heart cells harvested at 4.5 weeks aboard the ISS, and 10 days after returning to Earth.

These results showed that 2,635 genes were differentially expressed among flight, post-flight, and ground control samples.

Most notably, gene pathways related to mitochondrial function were expressed more in space-flown heart cells.

A comparison of the samples revealed that heart cells adopt a unique gene expression pattern during spaceflight, which reverts to one that is similar to groundside controls upon return to normal gravity, the study noted.

Heart Rate
Past studies have shown that spaceflight induces physiological changes in cardiac function, including reduced Heart Rate, lowered arterial pressure, and increased cardiac output. Pixabay

According to Wu, limitations of the study include its short duration and the use of 2D cell culture.

In future studies, the researchers plan to examine the effects of spaceflight and microgravity using more physiologically relevant hiPSC-derived 3D heart tissues with various cell types, including blood vessel cells.

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“We also plan to test different treatments on the human heart cells to determine if we can prevent some of the changes the heart cells undergo during spaceflight,” Wu said. (IANS)