New video released on Monday (June 27) by the European Space Agency (ESA) shows the cratered surface of the Solar System’s smallest planet, Mercury, captured during a super-close flyby by the BepiColombo spacecraft.
BepiColomboa joint ESA and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) mission, is currently on a seven-year journey through the interior solar systemusing the gravity of planets including Mercury, Venus and Earth to slow down so it can happen mercuryorbit in 2025.
The Mercury flyby, which took place on Thursday (June 23), was BepiColombo’s second flyby of the scorched, rocky planet that will be its ultimate destination. Just like during the first encounter, which took place on October 1, 2021, the probe approached the planet to an extremely small distance of only 200 kilometers. That’s closer than the BepiColombo mission’s two orbiters will orbit the planet upon arrival.
Related: The BepiColombo spacecraft swoops past Venus on its long journey to Mercury
The video released by ESA stitches together 56 images taken by the spacecraft’s three low-resolution surveillance cameras over a period of 15 minutes shortly after the probe’s closest approach to the planet. The first image was taken at a distance of 920 km (572 miles) and the sequence ends with BepiColombo, 6,099 km (3,790 miles) from the planet.
Because BepiColombo was approaching Mercury from the night side, the spacecraft was unable to image the planet at the moment of closest approach. However, other instruments on board the two orbiters were on and measuring solar wind near the spacecraft. The solar wind is a stream of charged particles emitted by the Sun that flows throughout the Solar System and drives space weather events on Earth and other planets.
The two orbiters travel through space stacked on a transfer module, so their high-resolution imagers are hidden and cannot be used during the travel phase.
The new images reveal a wealth of geological features, including numerous craters, volcanic plains and cliff-like tectonic fissures. Among the craters captured by the spacecraft is Caloris Planitia, the largest impact basin on Mercury and one of the largest in the entire Solar System. The 1,550 km (960 miles) wide crater was created by a giant asteroid at least 100 km (60 miles) in diameter. For comparison, scientists estimate that the Chicxulub asteroid which led to the extinction of the dinosaurs about 66 million years ago, was only 10 km wide.
BepiColombo is only the second mission in history to orbit Mercury and the third to photograph it. The planet is notoriously difficult to reach, as any spacecraft flying into the inner solar system must constantly brake against the planet’s gravitational pull Sun. Mission engineers therefore mapped a long and tortuous trajectory, passing over several celestial bodies, which heaviness of which slows down the spaceship.
NASA Messenger Mission studied Mercury between 2011 and 2015. The probe observed a number of mysterious phenomena, including Mercury magnetic field and the existence of Ice in the shadowy craters around the poles of the planet. This ice persists in these regions, although temperatures in the sun-exposed parts of the planet can reach an unforgiving 420 degrees Celsius. BepiColombo aims to shed more light on the mysteries of the planet.
The first probe to photograph Mercury was NASA’s mariners 10, which made three flybys of the planet while in orbit around the Sun in the early 1970s. BepiColombo’s next flyby of Mercury will be in about a year. In the meantime, BepiColombo will approach the Sun as closely as possible over the next month.
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