Wed. Dec 1st, 2021

BepiColombo’s first glimpse of Mercury: British-built spacecraft swoops within 125 miles of the surface of Solar System’s smallest planet

  • BepiColombo made the first of six flybys of Mercury at 11.34pm yesterday 
  • It came within 125 miles (200 kilometres) of the solar system’s innermost planet
  • The spacecraft took a low resolution black-and-white photo before zipping off


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A British-built spacecraft got its first glimpse of Mercury as it swung by the solar system’s innermost planet last night.

The BepiColombo mission made the first of six flybys of Mercury at 11.34pm yesterday, using the planet’s gravity to slow the spacecraft down.

After swooping past Mercury at altitudes of under 125 miles (200 kilometres), the spacecraft took a low resolution black-and-white photo with one of its monitoring cameras before zipping off again.

The European Space Agency said the captured image shows the Northern Hemisphere and Mercury’s characteristic pock-marked features, among them the 166-kilometer-wide (103-mile-wide) Lermontov crater.

British-built BepiColombo got its first glimpse of Mercury as it swung within 125 miles of the solar system's innermost planet last night

British-built BepiColombo got its first glimpse of Mercury as it swung within 125 miles of the solar system's innermost planet last night

British-built BepiColombo got its first glimpse of Mercury as it swung within 125 miles of the solar system’s innermost planet last night

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 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 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

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT MERCURY?

For all its bland ‘dead’ appearance, Mercury is a very interesting place

It is the smallest planet in our solar system – only slightly larger than the Earth’s moon.

On its sunward half, the planet sizzles at a temperature of 510°C (950°CF while its night side maintains –210°C (–346°F).

It is the closest planet to the sun at a distance of about 36 million miles (58 million km) or 0.39 AU.

Mercury has  a solid iron core that measures more than half the planet’s diameter. Earth, by contrast, has a solid core that’s just 9.5 per cent of its overall girth.

One day on Mercury takes 59 Earth days. Mercury makes a complete orbit around the sun (a year in Mercury time) in just 88 Earth days.

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 mission aims to deliver two probes into orbit in 2025. 

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 aim is to better understand the origin, processes currently at work, and evolution of the planet closest to our parent star. 

Travelling the 67 million miles to enter orbit around Mercury is no small task, requiring multiple flybys to speed up, or slow down, for orbital insertion. 

Gravitational flybys require extremely precise deep-space navigation work, ensuring that the spacecraft is on the correct approach trajectory.

The spacecraft’s cameras are positioned in a way to capture its solar arrays and antennas, and as the probe changes its orientation during the flyby, Mercury was seen passing behind the craft’s structural elements.

It is possible to identify large impact craters on the planet’s surface in the photo released by ESA. 

Mercury has a heavily cratered surface much like the appearance of Earth’s Moon, plotting its 4.6 billion year history. 

Mapping the surface of Mercury and analysing its composition will help scientists understand more about its formation and evolution.

Even though BepiColombo is in ‘stacked’ cruise configuration for the flybys, it will be possible to operate some of the science instruments on both planetary orbiters, allowing a first taste of the planet’s magnetic, plasma and particle environment. 

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.

It includes the ESA-led Mercury Planetary Orbiter and the JAXA-led Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter, which will study all aspects of the planet - from its core to surface processes, magnetic field and its exosphere

It includes the ESA-led Mercury Planetary Orbiter and the JAXA-led Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter, which will study all aspects of the planet - from its core to surface processes, magnetic field and its exosphere

It includes the ESA-led Mercury Planetary Orbiter and the JAXA-led Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter, which will study all aspects of the planet – from its core to surface processes, magnetic field and its exosphere

Mapping the surface of Mercury and analysing its composition will help scientists understand more about its formation and evolution

Mapping the surface of Mercury and analysing its composition will help scientists understand more about its formation and evolution

Mapping the surface of Mercury and analysing its composition will help scientists understand more about its formation and evolution

Colombo is known for explaining Mercury’s peculiar characteristic of rotating about its own axis three times in every two orbits of the Sun. 

He also realised that by careful choice of a spacecraft’s flyby point as it passed a planet, the planet’s gravity could help the spacecraft make further flybys. 

His interplanetary calculations enabled NASA’s Mariner 10 spacecraft to achieve three flybys of Mercury instead of one by using a flyby of Venus to change the spacecraft’s flight path. 

The BepiColombo mission will build on the successes of its predecessors to provide the best understanding of the Solar System’s innermost planet to date. 

HOW WILL BEPICOLOMBO GET TO MERCURY?

BepiColombo’s two orbiters, Japan’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter and the European Space Agency’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter, will be carried together by the Mercury Transport Module. 

The carrier will use a combination of electric propulsion and multiple gravity-assists at Earth, Venus and Mercury to complete the 7.2 year journey to the Solar System’s mysterious innermost planet 

Once at Mercury, the orbiters will separate and move into their own orbits to make complementary measurements of Mercury’s interior, surface, exosphere and magnetosphere. 

The information will tell us more about the origin and evolution of a planet close to its parent star, providing a better understanding of the overall evolution of our own Solar System.

Scientists launched what they termed ‘a technological masterpiece’ on October 20, 2018 from Kourou in French Guiana on the back of an Ariane rocket.

It is due to take up station around Mercury in December 2025.  

BepiColombo features three components that will separate upon arrival:

Mercury Transfer Module (MTM) for propulsion, built by the European Space Agency (ESA)

Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) built by ESA

Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO) or MIO built by Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)

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