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Image Credit: ESA/BepiColombo/MTM, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.

ESA’s and JAXA’s BepiColombo spacecraft conducts its first flyby at planet Mercury

The BepiColombo space probe of the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) successfully flew by the planet Mercury on Friday, October 1, 2021.

The encounter with the solar system’s smallest planet occurred on Friday evening at 23:34 UTC.

This week’s flyby at Mercury is the first in a series of six close encounters with the rocky world to be conducted by the spacecraft. Each time, Mercury’s gravity will reduce the probe’s relative velocity, so that the planet will be able to weakly capture BepiColombo on December 5, 2025. This will eliminate an orbit insertion burn by the spacecraft, thus saving propellant.

Because BepiColombo passed by Mercury’s night-side, no images of the planet’s surface were taken during the closest distance at just 199 kilometers. The craft took its first photographs of the planet about five minutes after the closest approach and at a distance of about 1,000 km. The final images were taken about four hours after the flyby.

The space probe had to relay on two of its three monitoring cameras to take images, because the high-resolution main science camera won’t be activated until the craft enters orbit.

The October 1 flyby was this year’s second gravity assist conducted by the spacecraft. BepiColombo flew by Venus, the solar system’s hottest planet, on August 10 at a distance of 552 km. That was the second and final Venus flyby to reduce the craft’s perihelion ahead of its encounters with Mercury and the subsequent orbit insertion.  

Mercury photographed by BepiColombo from a distance of 2,418 km. Image Credit: ESA/BepiColombo/MTM, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.
Mercury photographed by BepiColombo from a distance of 2,418 km. Image Credit: ESA/BepiColombo/MTM, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.

About BepiColombo

BepiColombo, which was launched into space on October 20, 2018 atop an Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana, is a three-part space probe operated by the European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

The craft consists of two orbiters, known as the Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) and the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO). Both space probes are attached to the Mercury Transfer Module (MTM), which serves as the vehicle’s propulsion module while on route to the planet.

The MPO and MMO will be separated from the MTM upon their arrival at Mercury and will enter into two different orbits around the planet.

The Mercury Planetary Orbiter of ESA will orbit Mercury at an altitude of about 480 km to 1,500 km, while the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter of JAXA will be placed into a 590 km to 11,640 km high orbit.

To learn as much as possible about the small rocky world, the MPO will focus on Mercury’s surface and its interior composition, while the MMO will study the planet’s magnetosphere.

Artist depiction of the joint European-Japanese space probe. Image Credit: ESA/ATG medialab.
Artist depiction of the joint European-Japanese space probe. Image Credit: ESA/ATG medialab.

Sources:

https://www.esa.int/Science_Exploration/Space_Science/BepiColombo/Mercury_ahead%21

https://sci.esa.int/web/bepicolombo/-/48872-spacecraft

https://www.esa.int/Science_Exploration/Space_Science/BepiColombo

https://www.airbus.com/space/space-exploration/bepicolombo.html

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