Leicester researchers design and build instrument to explore the surface of Mercury

An instrument designed and built by Leicester researchers, which will help to unlock the secrets of Mercury’s surface, has been shipped from the Space Research Centre to the European Space Agency, where it will be integrated with the BepiColombo spacecraft which is due to launch in 2017.

The MIXS team, the ESA review panel
The Mercury Imaging X-ray Spectrometer (MIXS) is funded by the UK Space Agency and will use novel X-ray optics to determine small-scale features on Mercury in order to 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.

Emma Bunce, Professor of Planetary Plasma Physics in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and MIXS

Professor Emma Bunce, Department of Physics and Astronomy
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.”

BepiColombo will be 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.