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The Superior Conjunction Experiment of BepiColombo
  • Ivan di Stefano,
  • Paolo Cappuccio,
  • Luciano IESS
Ivan di Stefano
Sapienza, University of Rome

Corresponding Author:ivan.distefano@uniroma1.it

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Paolo Cappuccio
European Space Agency,Sapienza University of Rome
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Luciano IESS
Sapienza University of Rome
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Launched in October 2018, the ESA/JAXA BepiColombo mission is currently in cruise to reach Mercury in late 2025. The Mercury Orbiter Radioscience Experiment (MORE) is one of the 16 instruments hosted on board the spacecraft. Testing general relativity is among the primary objectives of MORE. Superior conjunction experiments (SCE) will be performed during the interplanetary trajectory, with the aim of obtaining an accurate estimate of the post-Newtonian parameter γ. This is allowed by MORE advanced radio tracking system which provides precise range and Doppler data almost at all solar elongation angles, thus enabling an accurate measure of the relativistic time delay and frequency shift undergone by the signal when the spacecraft is in a superior solar conjunction (SSC). The rst BepiColombo SCE will take place in March 2021, and others will follow during the cruise phase. The nal objective is to place new limits to the accuracy of the general relativity as a theory of gravity in the weak eld limit, improving previous result from the Cassini SCE (Bertotti et al. 2003), which was able to determine that γ-1=(2.1±2.3)×10-5. Because of the proximity to the Sun, the spacecraft will undergo severe solar radiation pressure acceleration, and the effect of the random uctuations of the solar irradiance may become a major concern. We address the problem of a realistic estimate of the outcome of the SCE of BepiColombo, by including the effects of solar irradiance random variations in the dynamical model. We analyzed the experiment under different assumptions on the ranging system performances, observation coverage and solar activity showing their impact on the attainable result. We propose a numerical method to mitigate the impact of the variable solar radiation pressure on the scienti c result. Our simulations show that, exploiting data from multiple SSCs, the accuracy obtainable in the relativistic time delay measurement is 13×10-6 for a strong solar activity, and 6×10-6 for weak irradiance uctuations. We found that the latter result can be obtained by the rst SSC alone if the plasma noise calibration works until the impact parameter reaches 6 solar radii.