Hello Mercury! In Photos: Jaw-Dropping Images Of The Closest Planet To The Sun Sent Back From 62 Million Miles Away
A spacecraft called BepiColumbo has conducted a flyby of the planet Mercury while on the way to ... Mercury.
Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun (though not always the closest object), but despite being one of the closest planets to Earth it’s the least explored and least understood.
Cue BepiColumbo, which launched almost three years ago to study Mercury up close from orbit—though not until 2025.
The brief flyby saw the spacecraft get to within just 123 miles/198 kilometers of the surface.
It captured images and science data to give its mission scientists a first taste of what’s to come in the main mission, though because the spacecraft arrived on the planet’s nightside the closest image was captured from about 620 miles/1,000 kilometers.
These images—which show the impact craters on Mercury that make it look similar to our Moon—came back while BepiColumbo and Mercury were 62 million miles/100 million kilometers away from Earth.
Sadly the images are not particularly hi-res. That’s because the main science camera is packed away while BepiColumbo cruises through space.
So these images were snapped by two of BepiColombo’s three monitoring cameras, which took 1024 x 1024 pixel resolution photos from about five minutes after the time of close approach to about four hours later.
BepiColumbo is actually two orbiters; the European Space Agency (ESA) Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO). They will study Mercury in-sync to give astronomers two data points on some projects.
The spacecraft is named after the late Professor Giuseppe (Bepi) Colombo, an Italian mathematician and engineer who discovered a resonance that makes Mercury rotate on its axis three times every two years.
He also helped NASA use gravity-assist flybys of Venus and Mercury for its Mariner 10 probe, something that BepiColumbo spacecraft is making use of extensively to get into orbit of its target.
In a journey that will total seven years, BepiColombo will reach Mercury at a slow enough velocity to go into orbit—on December 5, 2025—only thanks to flybys first of Earth, then twice from Venus, and six times from Mercury itself.
This week saw its first Mercury flyby, with the next one due on June 23, 2022. .