Innovative UK-led space technology takes off on BepiColombo mission to Mercury

As the BepiColombo spacecraft sets off on its seven year journey to explore the strange world of Mercury this week, it will be carrying a piece of cutting-edge technology developed and built by UK scientists - and will represent a first for planetary science.

The BepiColombo mission is a two spacecraft mission, and a partnership between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

With £6.2 million of funding from the UK Space Agency, researchers from the University of Leicester have led the design, development and build of the Mercury Imaging X-Ray Spectrometer (MIXS), an innovative space instrument that will fly on the European spacecraft. The main goal is to produce a global map of Mercury’s surface atomic composition in unprecedented detail and thus help to provide the most complete exploration and study of the planet to date, as part of the BepiColombo mission.

MIXS is also the first true imaging X-ray telescope to visit another planetary body. It will observe the surface of Mercury from the Mercury Planetary Orbiter known as Bepi, which is scheduled to launch in the early hours of Saturday 20 October 2018 from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana.

The University of Leicester has led the development of MIXS as principal investigator. We have led a consortium of partners from across Europe who have delivered cutting-edge technologies for inclusion in the instrument. Our role includes: development, production and calibration of the optics, design and production of the front-end electronics and calibration of the focal plane detector. We were also responsible for the design, construction and calibration of the MIXS flight instrument and will lead in-flight data analysis.

The instrument represents a lasting legacy to Professor George Fraser, who was the original Principal Investigator before his untimely death in March 2014 and mastermind behind the novel optic design. This ground-breaking optic is the key piece of equipment that allows MIXS to work, for the first time offering an X-ray optic that is light enough for inclusion in an interplanetary mission.

Professor Emma Bunce, who is the University of Leicester Principal Investigator on the BepiColombo mission, said: “The data from our instrument and from the wider payload will revolutionise our understanding of Mercury. By measuring fluorescent X-rays from the dayside surface, MIXS will provide a detailed analysis of the surface elemental composition of Mercury that will help us understand the planet’s evolution and formation processes. The MIXS data set will also provide information on surface-exosphere-magnetosphere interactions by measuring the X-ray emission produced by particle impact with the surface on the nightside of the planet.”

Dr Adrian Martindale, who is the MIXS Instrument Scientist, said: “Working with an amazing team here in Leicester and with our partners across Europe we have produced a truly incredible instrument. As we approach such a big milestone of getting MIXS into space, we are grateful to all of our technical staff who have dedicated a significant fraction of their careers to making MIXS work and I can’t wait to see what new things their skill and dedication will allow us to discover when we get to Mercury.”

Leicester is the UK’s leading space city, home to the National Space Centre, Space Park Leicester and the University of Leicester’s #outofthisworld space research.

Professor Martin Barstow, Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Strategic Science Projects and Director, Leicester Institute of Space and Earth Observation said: “I am really excited about the launch of Bepi-Colombo, after more than 10 years of development. Our instrument is a great example of the cutting-edge space technology that we have produced over many decades and which feeds into the new research and innovation we will carry out in Space Park Leicester.”