Posted: Tue, Feb 27, 2007, 8:29 AM ET (1329 GMT)
The European Space Agency announced Monday that it plans to proceed with the development of a Mercury mission and awarded a contract to build the spacecraft. ESA said that the BepiColombo mission had been formally adopted by the agency's Science Program Committee. A contract to build the main BepiColombo spacecraft, valued at 330 million (US$435 million), was awarded to EADS Astrium on Monday as well. BepiColombo, scheduled for launch in 2013, will consist of a European orbiter and propulsion module, as well as a separate smaller orbiter provided by the Japanese space agency JAXA. The spacecraft will enter orbit around Mercury in 2019 to study the planet and its magnetosphere. A separate lander once planned for the mission was dropped because of cost issues. Mercury has to date been visited by only one spacecraft, NASA's Mariner 10 in the mid-1970s, although NASA has an orbiter mission, MESSENGER, en route to the planet.