University of Michigan researchers are working on the European Space Agency’s BepiColombo mission to send a spacecraft to Mercury’s atmosphere, a University press release announced. The mission hopes to analyze the planet and the solar system as a whole.

Stefano Livi, a research professor of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering, leads the investigation on the portion of the craft that measures the gases in Mercury’s upper atmosphere. James Slavin, another professor of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering, assists on analyzing Mercury’s atmospheric gases and its chemical composition. Slavin has worked on Mercury research since its start and, as a University of California-Los Angeles graduate student, he studied the planet’s plasma process and the impacts of solar wind.

This mission, which launches on Oct. 20 from French Guiana, is only the third mission in history to explore Mercury. The European Space Agency’s BepiColombo hopes to answer critical questions about the planet’s makeup, atmosphere and magnetic field. From these results, scientists can work to learn more about the solar system’s past and future.

Livi and Slavin work on the particle spectrometer called Strofio, which uses a rotating electric field and a time-of-flight system to evaluate the mass of particles in Mercury’s uppermost atmosphere. The time it takes for particles to pass through the system allow scientists to determine the particle’s mass. Using the mass will give researches the necessary information to date the makeup of the planet.

“Many theories have been developed. … Without measurements of what this gas is made of, how it reacts to external events and how it is swept away from the planet, we are working almost completely in the blind,” Livi said in the press release

Through the space mission, researchers can gather information from the orbit time of the satellite, take photos of the planet, analyze the x-ray and cosmic rays on Mercury’s surface and evaluate the atmosphere — the task of the Michigan research team.

The researchers can then use the information about the particles and their proximity the sun to learn about Mercury’s magnetic field and its interactions with solar wind.

“As human beings, we all want to know how we come to be as a species on this planet and, eventually, what’s going to happen to us,” Slavin said in the release. “It’s all ultimately about origins and destinies.

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