Europe’s Mercury probe BepiColombo will take a close look at its target planet on Monday (June 19) and we can expect some exciting new images to reach Earth soon after.
The flyby will be BepiColombois a third of mercury and will see the spacecraft fly by the planet at a very close range of just 147 miles (236 kilometers) at 3:34 p.m. EDT (1934 GMT). That’s closer than the probe’s two orbiters will orbit during the main mission.
However, the main objective of the flyby is not to capture stunning close-up images of Mercury’s surface, but rather to use Mercury’s surface to decelerate the spacecraft heaviness for it to enter orbit around the planet in late 2025.
“Our spacecraft launched with way too much energy because it launched from Earth and how our planet orbits the sun. In order to be caught by Mercury, we need to slow down and use the gravity of Earth, Venus and Mercury to do just that,” said ESA flight dynamics expert Frank Budnik in an opinion.
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The BepiColombo mission, a joint project by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), is only the third spacecraft in history to look at Mercury solar systemis the innermost planet notoriously difficult to explore.
Although Mercury is ten times closer on average Earth as Jupiter That is, the way to the innermost planet takes just as long as the way to the gas giant. This is because a spacecraft en route to Mercury must constantly brake against Mercury’s strong gravitational pull Sun. To do this, BepiColombo, launched in 2018, conducts carefully calculated flybys of planets while in orbit around the Sun. The probe has already flown past Mercury twice October 2021 and in July 2022. Before that the spaceship visited the earth once And Venus twice.
“Once BepiColombo begins to feel Mercury’s pull, it will be traveling at a speed of 3.6 km/s [2.2 miles per second] in relation to the planet. “That’s just over half the speed it reached during the last two Mercury flybys,” Budnik said.
The flyby will decrease the spacecraft’s speed by another 0.5 miles per second (0.8 km/s) compared to the Sun and change its direction by 2.6 degrees, Budnik added.
Before BepiColombo is finally slow enough to be overtaken by the rocky planet only slightly larger than Earth’s moon, there will be three more flybys of Mercury: in September 2024, in December of the same year and the last one in January 2025.
With some of the spacecraft’s instruments operational during the voyage, scientists are excited for the opportunity to take measurements of the boiling environment around Mercury. BepiColombo also has three low-resolution surveillance cameras that will capture black and white images of the little-explored rock world during the flyby.
The previous two flybys of Mercury have already yielded interesting scientific results, said Johannes Benkhoff, ESA’s BepiColombo project scientist, in the statement. For example, the probe made the first measurements of the planet’s weak southern inner magnetosphere, revealing the composition of charged particles in that region.
“Collecting data during flybys is extremely valuable for the science teams to verify that their instruments are working properly before the main mission,” said Benkhoff. “It also provides a novel opportunity to compare with data collected by NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft during its 2011-2015 mission to Mercury at complementary locations around the planet not normally accessible from orbit.”
The BepiColombo spacecraft consists of two stacked orbiters currently flying through the solar system. This means that some of the probes’ instruments are covered during the voyage. But during Monday’s flyby, two instruments designed to measure the shape of Mercury’s surface and study its gravitational field will collect data for the first time. Unfortunately, the orbiters’ main high-resolution cameras will not be available yet.
Two probes have previously examined Mercury at close range. NASA’s Mariner 10 flew past Mercury three times in 1974 and 1975, taking the first-ever images of the scorched planet. And NASA’s MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) mission orbited the planet from 2011 to 2015.