UK-built technology brings Europe’s Mercury mission closer to launch

Posted by ap507 at May 18, 2015 10:15 AM |
University of Leicester researchers design and build instrument to explore the surface of Mercury

Issued by the University of Leicester Press Office on 18 May

A UK-built instrument, designed to unlock the secrets of Mercury’s surface, has today (15 May 2015) been shipped from the University of Leicester’s Space Research Centre to the European Space Agency where it will be integrated with the BepiColombo spacecraft.

The Mercury Imaging X-ray Spectrometer (MIXS) is one of the main instruments on the upcoming BepiColombo Mercury mission, due for launch in 2017. Funded by the UK Space Agency, the instrument will use novel X-ray optics to determine small-scale features on Mercury and find out what the planet’s surface is made of. It will do this by measuring fluorescent X-rays that come from the planet’s surface, excited by high energy X-rays from the Sun, to identify chemical elements. The findings from the instrument could help explain how the planet formed during the early history of the Solar System.

In addition to the UK delivering the MIXS instrument, much of the BepiColombo spacecraft is also being built in the UK at Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage and UK companies are also holding contracts for several other components of the mission.

Dr David Parker, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, said: “The MIXS instrument for BepiColombo is an excellent example of the novel technology that is being designed and built in the UK for international space missions. The UK’s considerable skill in new technology development is not only allowing us to explore our solar system but is securing valuable contracts for UK industry whilst often creating products that can also be applied to other industries.”

BepiColombo will be only the third spacecraft to visit Mercury in the history of space exploration. Mercury’s harsh environment makes it a particularly challenging mission as the spacecraft will have to endure intense sunlight and temperatures up to 350°C while gathering data. The missions science goals are crucial to our understanding of how planetary surfaces are formed in general, and how they evolve and change over time – not only allowing us to piece together the history of our solar system but to place our own planetary environment into context.

Emma Bunce, Professor of Planetary Plasma Physics at the University of Leicester, and MIXS Principal Investigator, said: “The team have worked incredibly hard over many years and in particular throughout the last year, to design and build such a complex instrument. It has been a very challenging project from a technical point of view, as the instrument needs to survive extreme temperatures at the orbit of Mercury, perilously close to the Sun. The fact that we have got this far, and are delivering our flight model instrument that will go to Mercury to allow us to do such great new science, is entirely due to the dedication of our fantastic technical team.”

David Rothery, Professor of Planetary Geosciences at the Open University, who is lead Co-Investigator on MIXS and also leads the European Space Agency’s ‘Mercury Surface & Composition Working Group’ said:

“NASA’s MESSENGER mission that ended two weeks ago showed us that Mercury is a misfit planet. There’s so much about it that we didn’t expect and that we don’t understand. MIXS is one of the instruments for BepiColombo that will help us sort things out.”

BepiColombo will consist of three sections: a Mercury Transfer Module (MTM) - designed to get the spacecraft to the planet - and two orbiters: the European Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) and the Japanese Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO).

ESA is responsible for the larger MPO. Its 11 scientific instruments will study Mercury from a low-polar-orbit. 

Notes for editors:

The instrument team in the University of Leicester’s Space Research Centre (SRC), part of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, is led by Jim Pearson, Adrian Martindale, Chris Thomas and Jon Sykes with colleagues in the department. The project includes hardware contributions from international colleagues at the University of Helsinki/Finnish Meteorological Institute (Finland), the Max Planck Semi-Conductor Laboratory (Germany), and the Centre de Astrobiologia/Instituto Nacional de Tecnica Aerospacial (Spain).

The instrument is dedicated to Prof. George Fraser, who, until his untimely death in 2014, was the instrument Principal Investigator (PI). The team is now led by Prof. Emma Bunce as PI, who will head the project through to mission operations in 2024. Prof. Karri Muinonen (University of Helsinki) is the instrument CoPI, and Prof. David Rothery (Open University) is the Lead Co Investigator.


Julia Short

Press Officer

UK Space Agency


Ather Mirza

Director of the News Centre

University of Leicester


Rebecca Wilhelm

Open University



UK Space Agency

The UK Space Agency is at the heart of UK efforts to explore and benefit from space.  It is responsible for all strategic decisions on the UK civil space programme and provides a clear, single voice for UK space ambitions.

The Agency is responsible for ensuring that the UK retains and grows a strategic capability in the space-based systems, technologies, science and applications. It leads the UK’s civil space programme in order to win sustainable economic growth, secure new scientific knowledge and provide benefits to all citizens.

The UK Space Agency:

•           Co-ordinates UK civil space activity

•           Encourages academic research

•           Supports the UK space industry

•           Raises the profile of UK space activities at home and abroad

•           Increases understanding of space science and its practical benefits

•           Inspires our next generation of UK scientists and engineers

•           Licences the launch and operation of UK spacecraft

•           Promotes co-operation and participation in the European Space programme

The University of Leicester

The University of Leicester is a leading UK University committed to international excellence through the creation of world changing research and high quality, inspirational teaching. Leicester is consistently one of the most socially inclusive of the UK’s top 20 universities with a long-standing commitment to providing fairer and equal access to higher education. Leicester is a three-time winner of the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education and is the only University to win seven consecutive awards from the Times Higher. Leicester is ranked among the top one per-cent of universities in the world by the THE World University Rankings.

The Open University

The Open University (OU) is the largest academic institution in the UK and a world leader in flexible distance learning. Since it began in 1969, the OU has taught more than 1.8 million students and has around 200,000 current students, including more than 15,000 overseas.

In the latest assessment exercise for university research (Research Excellence Framework), nearly three quarters (72%) of The Open University’s research was assessed as 4 or 3 star – the highest ratings available – and awarded to research that is world-leading or internationally excellent. The Open University is unique among UK universities having both an access mission and demonstrating research excellence.

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