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Spacecraft Sends First Mercury Images During Flyby

BepiColombo spacecraft
The BepiColombo spacecraft, launched by the ESA, has sent its first images of Mercury during a flyby of the planet. Credit: European Space Agency

BepiColombo, a joint European-Japanese spacecraft, got its first glimpse of Mercury as it swung by the solar system’s innermost planet while on a mission to deliver two probes into orbit in 2025.

The BepiColombo mission made the first of six flybys of Mercury at 11:34 p.m. GMT Friday, using the planet’s gravity to slow the spacecraft down.

After swooping past Mercury at altitudes of under 125 miles, the spacecraft took a low-resolution black-and-white photo with one of its monitoring cameras before zipping off again.

BepiColombo is not ready to deploy its high-resolution science cameras. They are tucked away inside what is referred to as the spacecraft stack.

Revealing images by Mercury spacecraft

The European Space Agency said the captured image shows the northern hemisphere and Mercury’s characteristic pock-marked features – among them the 166km (103 mile) wide Lermontov crater.

The joint mission by the European agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency was launched in 2018, flying once past Earth and twice past Venus on its journey to the solar system’s smallest planet.

“The flyby was flawless from the spacecraft point of view, and it’s incredible to finally see our target planet,” said Elsa Montagnon, the spacecraft operations manager for the mission.

The spacecraft is on a seven year journey to the smallest and least explored terrestrial planet in our Solar System. When it arrives on Mercury in late 2025, it will endure temperatures in excess of 350 °C and gather data during its one-year nominal mission, with a possible one-year extension.

The BepiColombo mission will study all aspects of this mysterious inner planet from its core to surface processes, magnetic field and exosphere, “to better understand the origin and evolution of a planet close to its parent star”, ESA said.

The mission comprises two spacecraft: the Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) and the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (Mio). Mercury is the only rocky planet orbiting the Sun beside our own to have a magnetic field.

The Mercury anomaly

Magnetic fields are generated by a liquid core, but given its size, Mercury’s should have grown cold and solid by now, as Mars’ did.

This anomaly might be due to some feature of the core’s composition, something BepiColombo’s instruments will measure with much greater precision than has been possible so far.

Five further flybys are needed before BepiColombo is sufficiently slowed down to release ESA’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter and Jaxa’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter. The two probes will study Mercury’s core and processes on its surface, as well as its magnetic sphere.

The mission is named after Italian scientist Giuseppe “Bepi” Colombo, who is credited with helping develop the gravity assist maneuver that NASA’s Mariner 10 first used when it flew to Mercury in 1974.

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