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In 2013, the European Space Agency (ESA) will launch an ambitious mission to Mercury. The spacecraft, named BepiColombo after the Italian astrophysicist Guiseppe Colombo, is part of ESA's Cornerstone programme and received final approval in October 2000.
After launch the spacecraft will travel to Mercury, going into orbit after a series of encounters en-route with Venus and Mercury itself. The craft are scheduled to arrive in 2019.
On arrival, BepiColombo will separate into the two separate modules. The Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) will enter an orbit between 400 and 1500 km above the surface, imaging the planet with a number of cameras. The sharpest images should show features as small as 10 m across. A laser altimeter will measure the altitude of relief on the Mercurian surface, giving astronomers their first 3D map of the planet. MPO is designed to operate for about a year.
The Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO) will investigate the magnetic field environment of the planet. It will detect particles which originate either from the Sun's solar wind or from the planet itself. MMO also carries a backup camera to supplement the images obtained from MPO.
Both MPO and MMO will operate for at least one year with a possible extension to September 2021.
The proposed lander (named Mercury Surface Element or MSE) was cancelled in 2004. Despite this setback, BepiColombo will make a major contribution to planetary science – it will be only the third spacecraft to visit Mercury, complementing NASA's Messenger mission that will arrive in 2010.