As mission to Mercury sets for launch today, Australian space station to play a key role

An Australian space station will play a key role in a mission to Mercury due to launch today.

The BepiColombo space mission will take off from a spaceport in French Guiana, on the northeast coast of South America at 2.45pm.

The New Norcia tracking station, about 140km north of Perth, will monitor the spacecraft over its first three days and throughout its seven-year journey to Mercury.

The mission is a joint project by the European Space Agency and Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency involving two separate orbiters that will build on the findings of the only two previous Mercury missions, both by NASA.

The spacecraft will make measurements of the planet's environment and provide information about solar system evolution.

One of the mission's greatest challenges will be the sun's enormous gravity, which makes it difficult to place a spacecraft into a stable orbit around Mercury.

"Even more energy is needed than sending a mission to Pluto," the European Space Agency said in a statement.

"After launch, and having escaped the 'gravity well' of Earth, BepiColombo has to constantly brake against the gravitational pull of the sun."

The name BepiColombo is for Italian mathematician and engineer Giuseppe (Bepi) Colombo (1920-84), known for explaining Mercury's peculiar characteristic of rotating about its own axis three times in every two orbits of the sun.

The tracking station at New Norcia is comprised of a 35-metre-deep space antenna.

Owned by the European Space Agency, the New Norcia station provides routine operations for the agency's other ongoing missions, including one to Mars.

New Norcia will monitor elements of the health of the BepiColombo spacecraft such as fuel use, battery power and direction of travel.

Space