The first up-close view of Mercury has been captured by a space mission launched jointly by the Japanese and European space agencies.
BepiColombo is a pair linked orbiters that snapped photos of Mercury’s northern hemisphere on Oct. 1. This was during a long-awaited flyby about the innermost planet within our Solar System. The images show Mercury’s northern hemisphere and the dozens of craters that dot its surface, including one that’s been the site of several volcanic explosions, according to a statement from the European Space Agency. Also captured in the shot are the spacecraft’s antennas and magnetometer boom.
BepiColombo was launched by the ESA and Japan Space Exploration Agency in 2018. It was designed to take images of Mercury and help us understand its origins and evolution. Only two probes ever made it to the planet have been successful: Mariner 10 and MESSENGER. They flew by in 1975 and 1975 respectively.
This week’s flyby marked BepiColombo’s first of six around Mercury. The space probes passed within 124 miles (199 km) of the planet’s surface.
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“The flyby was flawless from the spacecraft point of view, and it’s incredible to finally see our target planet,” said Elsa Montagnon, the mission’s spacecraft operations manager, in an ESA press release.
“It was very exciting to see BepiColombo’s first images of Mercury, and to work out what we were seeing,” added David Rothery, head of the ESA’s Mercury Surface and Composition Working Group. “It has made me even more enthusiastic to study the top quality science data that we should get when we are in orbit around Mercury, because this is a planet that we really do not yet fully understand.”
The Mercury flyby will take place in June next year. Four more are scheduled for December 2024 (December 2024), January 2025 (January 2025), and June 2023 (September 2024). If everything goes according to plan, BepiColombo will slow down enough to enter Mercury’s orbit by the end of 2025. The two orbiters then will start their main scientific mission: mapping Mercury’s surface in order to study its composition, surface processes, and magnetic fields.