BepiColombo reaches Mercury, first spacecraft in over a decade

On Friday, the BepiColombo spacecraft flew by the smallest planet in our solar system for the first time on its planned 7-year travel.

The BepiColombo mission made its first flyby of the planet around 7:34 p.m. ET on Friday, passing within 124 miles (200 kilometers) of the heavily cratered surface. That’s half the distance of the International Space Station’s orbit around Earth, which is roughly 254 miles.

“BepiColombo is now as close to Mercury as it will get in this first of six Mercury flybys,” said the European Space Agency (ESA) on Twitter.

Along with being the smallest, Mercury is also one of the least explored planets in the solar system. This ‘cornerstone’ mission, jointly managed by the ESA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency(JAXA) launched in 2018. After completing a total of six flybys of Mercury, the spacecraft will begin entering orbit around the planet, the ESA predicts in December of 2025.

A “splendid view of part of Mercury’s northern hemisphere,” says the ESA. Captured at a distance of about 1,000 kilometers (about 621 miles) about 5 minutes after the close approach.

The BepiColombo mission will actually place two orbiters around Mercury: the ESA-led Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) to map the planet, and the JAXA-led Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO) to investigate its magnetosphere. The orbiters will remain stacked in their current configuration with the Mercury Transfer Module until separation in 2025.

Unfortunately, in this transit configuration access to onboard instruments is limited. Since the two orbiters are stacked on top of a transfer module, a lot of the instruments are blocked, including a high-resolution camera.

Once the BepiColombo spacecraft has inserted itself into Mercury’s orbit, the Mercury Transfer Module will separate and the two orbiters will begin to position themselves. The Japanese MMO will circle at a highly eccentric orbit, while the European MPO will orbit much closer.

The two probes will spend at least a year collecting data to better help scientists understand the often overlooked planet. They hope to learn more about its composition, atmosphere, magnetic field, and the history that has unfolded on the surface. There are many questions to answer and BepiColombo will take up the task of providing scientists with the best information to unlock the planet’s mysteries in years to come.

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