Qinetiq announced today it will supply a solar-electric propulsion system for the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) BepiColombo spacecraft mission to Mercury.
The defence company has been awarded a £23m contract by EADS Astrium to provide the technology.
BepiColombo, due to launch in 2014, is Europe’s first mission to Mercury. The inner most planet of the solar system has temperatures that can reach 470°C.
Mercury’s proximity to the Sun presents ESA with a range of technical challenges. Not only is solar radiation 10 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.
David Southwood, ESA’s director of science and robotic exploration, said an advanced electric propulsion system is an essential part of meeting this technical challenge.
Qinetiq’s solar-electric propulsion system comprises four T6 ion thrusters. The company claims these thrusters are around 10 times more efficient than chemical thrusters that have traditionally been used as propulsion systems on spacecraft.
The thrusters use the inert gas xenon as their propellant and have already been successfully demonstrated on ESA’s GOCE spacecraft, which is currently in orbit measuring the Earth’s gravitational field.
Graham Love, chief executive of Qinetiq, said the BepiColombo project is Qinetiq’s largest space-related contract to date, but implied there could be even more exciting opportunities in the future.
‘Electric propulsion will make deep space missions possible for the first time and offers significant efficiencies to enhance future communication satellite operations,’ he said.