The joint Euro-Japanese mission to Mercury BepiColombo captured its first images of the planet on Friday October 1.
The mission, named after Italian scientist Giuseppe “Bepi” Colombo, is a joint initiative of the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). It was launched from ESA’s spaceport in French Guiana in 2018.
The closest approach to Mercury by BepiColombo took place Friday at 10:34 pm Irish time at an altitude of 199 km, during an overflight that the operations manager of the spacecraft Elsa Montagnon described as “flawless”.
“It’s amazing to finally see our target planet,” she added.
Although the flyby marks the mission’s first foray into Mercury’s gravitational field, BepiColombo is only visiting for now. This is one of nine gravitational assist maneuvers that the spacecraft performs on its journey: one on Earth, two on Venus, and six on Mercury itself. It will finally achieve its orbital insertion around the planet in December 2025, everything is going as planned.
The images were taken by surveillance cameras on the Mercury transfer module, and are positioned to also include part of the spacecraft itself, including its magnet pole and antennas.
ESA described the photography conditions as “not ideal” because BepiColombo has arrived on the dark side of the planet, so the closest images were captured about 1,000 km from the surface.
“It was an incredible feeling to see these almost live images of Mercury,” said Valetina Galluzzi, co-investigator on the mission’s SIMBO-SYS imaging system.
“It really pleased me to meet the planet that I have studied since the very early years of my research career, and I look forward to working on new images of Mercury in the future. “
When BepiColombo finally reaches its orbit around the planet, its two satellites, ESA’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) and JAXA’s Mercury Magnetosphere Orbiter (Mio), will separate and study Mercury.
The planet is not well understood in relation to Venus or Mars. Previously, NASA’s Mariner 10 in 1975 and MESSENGER in 2011 were the only missions to visit the planet, only the latter actually reaching orbit.
Scientists at ESA and JAXA hope that BepiColombo’s various experiments will shed light on some of the mysteries of Mercury. Various aspects of the planet are to be studied, in particular its core, its surface, its magnetic field and its exosphere, to “better understand the origin and evolution of a planet close to its mother star” according to ESA.
After reaching its orbit in December 2025, BepiColombo will begin its main science mission in early 2026.
Today (October 4) marks the start of World Space Week, which in 2021 revolves around the theme of “women in space”.