London, Jan 19 : European Space Agency has started the process that would lead to the launch of its Mercury mission by August 2013, which would shed new light on the planet.
The process involves the signing of a contract for industrial development for the mission known as BepiColombo, which includes construction of spacecraft subsystems and science instrument design.
BepiColombo, which would be carried out as a joint mission under ESA leadership with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), would make the most comprehensive study of Mercury ever.
"BepiColombo will make the most detailed study of Mercury ever, revealing the secrets of the planet closest to the Sun - what it is formed of, how the Sun affects it and what we can learn about the other planets by comparison," said Professor Keith Mason, Chief Executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council.
It would also be the first dual mission to Mercury, with one European spacecraft and one provided from Japan.
One spacecraft, ESA's Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO), will carry 11 instruments to study the surface and internal composition of the planet with unprecedented accuracy, using different wavelengths and investigation techniques.
The main instrument aboard this spacecraft would be the Mercury Imaging X-ray Spectrometer (MIXS).
According to Professor George Fraser of the University of Leicester Space Research Centre, "MIXS will look at the x-rays coming from the planet Mercury to study the composition of the surface, helping us to test models of the planet's formation."
The second spacecraft, JAXA's Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO), will carry five instruments to study the planet's magnetosphere, the region of space around the planet that is dominated by its magnetic field.
NASA's Messenger mission, which flew past Mercury on January 14, has also helped to reveal new information about the planet.
"The preliminary close-up images from NASA's MESSENGER flyby of Mercury this week offer tantalising indications of a complex history of lava flows partly burying the planet's more ancient primitive crust," said Dr David Rothery of the Open University, who is the UK Lead Scientist for MIXS and Co-Chairman of ESA's Mercury Surface and Composition Working Group.
"The high spatial resolution achievable by MIXS will be vital in order to distinguish the compositions of these two very different types of crust, which is essential if we are to unravel the mysteries of Mercury's origin and evolution," he added.