Missions to Mercury


According to one concept circa 2009, the Mercury-P spacecraft could travel to the inner Solar System was the help of an electrically propelled Dvina-TM space tug.


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Russian-European cooperation on BepiColombo mission

Until 2018, the US had remained the only space power venturing to explore Mercury, the closest to the Sun planet of the Solar System. NASA's Mariner-10 spacecraft conducted three brief encounters with the planet in the 1970s and the Messenger probe embarked on an orbiting mission in the 2000s.

The actual landing on Mercury was initially considered within the European-led BepiColombo mission. Russian engineers could theoretically adapt their low-cost landers from lunar and Martian missions for the survival on the boiling surface of Mercury, however these plans could not materialize within the scope of the project. Less ambitious Russian participation in BepiColombo still survived the cuts.

According to the head of the Russian space agency, Anatoly Perminov, during Paris Air and Space Show in Le Bourget in June 2009, Roskosmos and ESA planned to sign an agreement on cooperation on the Russian involvement in the BepiColombo mission. Plans to launch BepiColombo onboard the Soyuz-2 rocket from its launch complex in Kourou had to be dropped, as the spacecraft's thermal control system brought it beyond the capabilities of the Russian vehicle. However along with the move to the Ariane-5 launcher, the door opened for Russian science instruments onboard the mission. Under the deal, the Institute of Space Research, IKI, in Moscow would supply instruments for the European orbiter. According to the project scientists, European Space Agency, ESA, was expected to finalize the mission design in October 2009.

The scientific payload of the BepiColombo mission consisted of the 500-kilogram European Mercury Polar Orbiter, MPO, spacecraft and a 250 Japanese MMO sub-satellite. MPO would be inserted into a circular orbit and conduct remote studies of the planet, while MMO would enter a highly elliptical orbit with a perigee (closest point) as low as 400 kilometers from the planet and an (apogee) as far as 12,000 kilometers. Among its instruments, MPO would carry ultraviolet spectrometer dubbed Phebus developed jointly by France, Japan and Russia. Moscow-based Space Research Institute was responsible for the development of a one-kilogram guidance measurement mechanism consuming around 5 Watts of onboard power.

In turn, the MMO orbiter will be carrying a spectrometer developed jointly by Russian and Japanese scientists. Designated MSASI, the instrument was designed to map sodium on Mercury. Its 0.96-kilogram scanning mechanism was developed in Russia. Finally, IKI was working on the Mercury neutron and gamma-spectrometer, MGNS, for the mission. (612)

Mercury-P project

As NASA resumed its exploration of Mercury with the Messenger mission in 2008, Space Research Institute, IKI, also revisited this exotic destination in the Solar System. According to IKI, a three-phase study, NIR, of the Mercury-Landing Module, MPM, had evaluated "scientific and technical proposals for the science goals and equipment for the exploration of the planet's surface."

The study showed the possibility for the development of a small automated lander, MAS. The document also contained a preliminary list of scientific instruments to be installed onboard. IKI studied the possibility of "recycling" hardware developed for the Phobos-Grunt project, as well as for Mars-NET, Mars-96 and Solar Sail spacecraft. Scientists also proposed a number of upgrades of the hardware.

A proposed flight scenario for the mission included a flyby of Venus, the insertion of the spacecraft into the orbit around Mercury and the delivery of a lander on its surface. The mission concept took advantage of previous experience of NPO Lavochkin design bureau in the development of small landers and of the Phobos-Grunt project. The study formulated basic requirements for the systems of the lander.

IKI also analyzed trajectories to reach Mercury and selected an orbit around the planet, from which the landing attempt would be made. Various launch vehicles for the mission had been analyzed. The study also formulated requirements for two types of missions, one of which would aim to achieve only the most minimal goals.

In the course of the study, IKI drafted technical assignments for the development of scientific payloads and the propulsion system of the lander. According to IKI, the completed work paved the way to the development of other systems onboard the lander and possibly the manufacturing of mockups of the scientific instruments.

Mission details

The concept of the Russian mission to Mercury became known as Mercury-P, where "P" apparently stood for the Russian word "posadka" - or landing. The Mercury-P spacecraft was expected to study the geology and composition of the planet as well as plasma environment around it. The cartography, chemical analysis of the surface of the planet, along with seismic research would also be conducted on Mercury. Based on the depictions of Mercury-P, it seemed that the spacecraft would use some variation of the Dvina space tug, powered by electric engines.

As of 2009, Mercury-P was expected to lift off around 2024. Unrealistic launch dates of 2016 and 2019 were also quoted by the Russian press around the same time period. However all these hopes evaporated in the crash of the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, which was to serve as a boilerplate for the mission to Mercury among many other planetary projects. By the beginning of 2012, the Mercury-P mission was pushed to back to the end of 2020s. Accordingly, in August 2012, a newly proposed schedule of Russian planetary missions extending to 2026 did not list a mission to Mercury.


Mercury-P mission specifications (as of 2010):

Launch vehicle Soyuz-2
Spacecraft mass 8,120 kilograms
Landing section mass 710 kilograms
Surface probe mass 40 kilograms
Science payload mass on the orbiter 50 kilograms

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Page author: Anatoly Zak

Last update: October 20, 2018

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Bepi Colombo

Europe's BepiColombo spacecraft could potentially bring Russian-built hardware to Mercury for the first time. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak


Mercury-P spacecraft in launch configuration.


Landing section of the Mercury-P spacecraft.


Artist rendering of the Mercury-P spacecraft approaching its namesake planet.


Landing scenario for Mercury-P mission.