QinetiQ wins £23m electric propulsion contract for European mission to Mercury

02 Sep 2009
QinetiQ today announced that it has signed a £23m contract with EADS Astrium for the supply of the solar-electric propulsion system for European Space Agency’s (ESA's) BepiColombo spacecraft mission to the planet Mercury.

BepiColombo, due to launch in 2014, is Europe's first mission to Mercury – the inner most planet of the solar system where temperatures can reach 470 °C. Because Mercury is so close to the Sun, the mission presents ESA with a range of daunting technical challenges. Not only is solar radiation ten times stronger on Mercury, but it also takes six years to get there and requires a large amount of energy to brake the spacecraft against the Sun’s gravitational pull.

"Mercury is the planet closest to the Sun, making it hard to get to, so an advanced electric propulsion system is an essential part of meeting the technical challenge," said Prof. David Southwood, ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration. "However the goal of the mission is very important – Mercury has regularly confounded planetary scientists with its exceptional properties and that makes it a grand scientific challenge."

QinetiQ's solar-electric propulsion system comprises four T6 ion thrusters that have been selected because they are around ten times more efficient than chemical thrusters that have traditionally been used as propulsion systems on spacecraft. The electric propulsion system will be complemented by several planetary gravity-assist manoeuvres with BepiColombo "swinging by" Venus, as well as the Earth and Mercury to benefit from their gravitational fields.

Dr Mike Healy, Director of Earth Observation, Navigation and Science, Astrium Ltd, said: "The solar-electric propulsion system is a critical component for the BepiColombo mission. As the industrial prime contractor for the spacecraft, Astrium selected QinetiQ on the basis of the company’s world leading capability in this field. We look forward to continuing our strong cooperation with them on this exciting programme."

The thrusters use the inert gas xenon as their propellant and have already been proven on ESA's GOCE spacecraft, which is currently in orbit measuring the Earth's gravitational field.

“This has been an extremely exciting year for the Space team at QinetiQ, with the first in-orbit qualification of our smaller T5 ion engines on the GOCE spacecraft and now the confirmation of our world-class T6 engine solution for BepiColombo representing QinetiQ's largest space-related contract to date,” said Graham Love, QinetiQ CEO.

He concluded: "Electric propulsion will make deep space missions possible for the first time and offers significant efficiencies to enhance future communication satellite operations."
A mission to the inner Solar System is extremely challenging from the technical point of view: not only will the spacecraft have to survive and operate in the very hot environment around a planet so close to the Sun, but it will also require a large amount of energy to brake against the Sun’s gravity and enter into orbit around Mercury.
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QinetiQ wins £23m electric propulsion contract for European mission to Mercury