Airbus Defence and Space

Airbus Defence and Space and ESA sign contract for Mercury probe

Friedrichshafen, 18 January 2008 – Airbus Defence and Space is set to build the Mercury probe BepiColombo on behalf of the European Space Agency, ESA. In Friedrichshafen today, representatives of ESA and of Airbus Defence and Space, Europe’s largest space company, signed the main industrial contract for the mission to the innermost planet of the solar system. The contract is worth 350.9 million euros. BepiColombo is scheduled to begin its journey to Mercury in 2013, and is considered to be the most sophisticated scientific mission in the history of European space exploration to date.


  • BepiColombo to head for the innermost planet in 2013
  • Extreme temperatures – a challenge for the engineers
  • Airbus Defence and Space continues its successful series of planetary probes

BepiColombo will consist of three modules: a European orbiter, a Japanese orbiter and a transfer module carrying the two spacecraft to Mercury. The complete unit will have a height of approximately five metres and a mass of about three tonnes, of which about 50% is propellant.

The European “Mercury Planetary Orbiter” (MPO) will be equipped with eleven scientific instruments. Flying in a polar orbit, it will study Mercury for at least a year, imaging the planet’s surface, generating height profiles, and collecting data on Mercury’s composition and atmosphere. The Japanese “Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter” (MMO) will investigate the planet’s magnetic field with its five on-board instruments.

Airbus Defence and Space in Germany leads an industrial team whose core members include Airbus Defence and Space Ltd in the UK and Thales Alenia Space in Italy. Airbus Defence and Space in Friedrichshafen is responsible for the entire “three-section” spacecraft, Including attitude and orbit control design and development. The integration of the engineering model of BepiColombo will take place in Friedrichshafen. Airbus Defence and Space in the UK is responsible for the structure of the entire spacecraft including the launch vehicle adapter, the complex mission analysis that will require numerous swing-bys of the Earth, the moon, and Venus in its six year flight plan, and also the two chemical propulsion systems and the ion propulsion system. Airbus Defence and Space in France will develop the on-board software, building on experience gained from the Rosetta, Mars Express and Venus Express probes which are already in space.

One of the greatest challenges facing Airbus Defence and Space engineers is that of preparing BepiColombo for the extreme temperatures it will encounter – close to Mercury, solar radiation is up to ten times stronger than on Earth, with temperatures of up to 470 degrees Celsius on the planet’s surface.

Experts at Airbus Defence and Space will use a variety of techniques to protect the electronics and scientific instruments from the extreme heat including a newly designed insulating blanket made of a combination of glass fibre, titanium film and ceramic fibres, and a radiator to release the heat from the probe’s interior into space. In addition, the spacecraft will use special solar arrays capable of supplying power even when temperatures reach 250 degrees Celsius.

The combination of a conventional chemical propulsion system with an innovative ion propulsion system will provide the required thrust on BepiColombo’s long journey. Several swing-by manoeuvres are planned in order to propel the probe out of Earth’s orbit and into its planned trajectory. During these manoeuvres, BepiColombo will be accelerated using the gravity fields of the Moon, then decelerated by Earth and Venus. After two further swing-by manoeuvres at Mercury, BepiColombo will reach its destination in 2019 and enter into a polar orbit.

Scheduled to explore Mercury for at least 12 months, the spacecraft’s mission may be extended by a further year. To date, planetary researchers know very little about the hottest planet in our solar system.

Airbus Defence and Space, a wholly owned subsidiary of AIRBUS Group, is dedicated to providing civil and defence space systems and services. In 2006, Airbus Defence and Space had a turnover of €3.2 billion and 12,000 employees in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain and the Netherlands. Its three main areas of activity are A**strium Space Transportation** for launchers and orbital infrastructure, and Airbus Defence and Space for spacecraft and ground segment, and its wholly owned subsidiary Airbus Defence and Space for the development and delivery of satellite services.

AIRBUS Group is a global leader in aerospace, defence and related services. In 2006, AIRBUS Group generated revenues of €39.4 billion and employed a workforce of more than 116, 000.


Media Contacts:

Jeremy Close (Airbus Defence and Space UK) - Phone: +44 (0)1 438 77 3872

Mathias Pikelj (Airbus Defence and Space GER) - Phone: +49 (0) 7545 8 91 23

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