Europe’s Mercury-bound probe, BepiColombo, recently completed its third close encounter with its target. This exciting event, which occurred on Monday (June 19), provided scientists with valuable insights into the planet Mercury’s surface, which is filled with many craters.
Details about BepiColombo
BepiColombo is a joint mission between Europe and Japan that was launched back in 2018. After nearly seven years of traveling through the inner solar system, the spacecraft is now approaching the final stage of its journey.
To reach Mercury, BepiColombo cleverly exploits the gravitational forces of our home planet Earth, as well as Venus, to gradually decrease its speed. This allows the spacecraft to transition from the orbit of the Sun to that of Mercury by late 2025.
During its recent flyby, BepiColombo came astonishingly close to Mercury’s surface, getting within a mere 150 miles (236 kilometers).
Scientists took advantage of this moment to capture images of the scorched surface and collect important measurements. The dedicated team of scientists and engineers behind this mission are eagerly analyzing the data gathered during this close encounter, which promises to reveal fascinating insights into this enigmatic planet.
Batch of newly captured images
The European Space Agency (ESA) wasted no time in sharing the first batch of newly captured images. Surprisingly, these images were released just a day after the closest approach occurred on Monday at 3:34 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time (1934 Greenwich Mean Time).
The revealed images provide a treasure trove of geological wonders, as described by the ESA. They showcase an abundance of craters, along with ancient volcanic ridges and lava flows.
Among the fascinating features captured in these images is a crater that has recently been given a brand-new name: Edna Manley. This name honors the memory of an artist of Jamaican and British descent who passed away in 1987.
Beagle Rupes escarpment
The spacecraft had the opportunity to observe a prominent geological feature known as the Beagle Rupes escarpment. This cliff stretches an impressive 370 miles (600 kilometers) in length and was formed billions of years ago during the early cooling and contraction phase of Mercury.
Interestingly, the Beagle Rupes was initially discovered by NASA’s Messenger mission, which orbited Mercury from 2011 to 2015. Now, scientists eagerly await the chance to compare the original views obtained by Messenger with the newly captured images from BepiColombo.
Moreover, the images unveiled a diverse array of ancient impact basins that were once filled with volcanic lavas during the planet’s early billion years. These basins provide evidence of Mercury’s past tectonic activity when the planet was still in its dynamic phase.
“This is an incredible region for studying Mercury’s tectonic history,” Valentina Galluzzi, a scientist at Italy’s National Institute for Astrophysics said.
“The complex interplay between these escarpments shows us that as the planet cooled and contracted it caused the surface crust to slip and slide, creating a variety of curious features that we will follow up in more detail once in orbit.”
BREAKING 🚨: New images of Mercury are coming in from the BepiColombo spacecraft after a flyby on Monday pic.twitter.com/rmrtesPkFo
— Latest in space (@latestinspace) June 21, 2023
Inability to capture precise images
Regrettably, the spacecraft encountered a limitation during its closest approach, preventing it from capturing images at that precise moment. The arrival at the planet occurred from the night side, resulting in unfavorable lighting conditions for photography.
However, approximately 20 minutes after the closest approach, BepiColombo managed to capture images from a distance of about 2,170 miles (3,500 kilometers).
The BepiColombo mission consists of two orbiters stacked on top of each other as they traverse through space. However, this configuration currently conceals some of the probes’ instruments, including the main high-resolution cameras of BepiColombo.
Significant moments along the way
Throughout its journey, the spacecraft has been utilizing these cameras to send back postcards, capturing significant moments during its voyage. These include images taken during a flyby of Earth in 2020, two separate flybys of Venus in 2020 and 2021, as well as two previous flybys of Mercury in 2021 and 2022.
We can anticipate three more flybys in the upcoming years before BepiColombo gradually loses enough energy to be captured by the feeble gravitational pull of the diminutive planet Mercury, only slightly larger than Earth’s moon, which will finally capture BepiColombo in December 2025.