Mercury is finally back in the spotlight, as a space probe has crossed its crater-ridden surface for the first time in six years.
When it flew over Mercury on Friday, the BepiColombo spacecraft captured the above image from 1,500 miles (2,418 kilometers), about 10 minutes after bypassing the planet. The image shows ancient lava fields in Mercury’s northern hemisphere.
This is BepiColombo’s first good look at its target planet since its launch in 2018. The spacecraft is a joint mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). It’s on track to fall into orbit around Mercury in 2025, where it will map the planet’s surface, analyze its composition, and sense its magnetic field. Scientists hope that all this data will reveal the history of the closest planet to the sun.
But first, BepiColombo must swing across Earth, Venus, and Mercury, taking advantage of the planets’ gravitational pull to lure themselves toward their final orbital path. The spacecraft has already flown through Earth and Venus. Friday was the first of six Mercury flights.
“The flyby was flawless from a spacecraft standpoint, and it is amazing to finally see our target planet,” said Elsa Montagnion, the mission’s director of spacecraft operations. Press release.
The last time a spacecraft flew by Mercury was in 2015, when NASA’s Messenger probe took one last look at the planet’s craters before crashing into its surface.
BepiColombo footage shows Mercury fading into the distance
The images of BepiColombo Mercury are so detailed that scientists can identify specific craters called Rudaki, Lemontov, and Calvino.
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But BepiColombo isn’t using its best lenses yet. Images from Friday’s flyby come from black-and-white surveillance cameras, but the spacecraft also has an array of high-resolution cameras that will publish once it finally reaches Mercury orbit.
The European Space Agency has combined 53 images from the BepiColombo flyby in a video, below, to show the planet fading into the distance as the spacecraft slid away.
At its closest approach, the spacecraft was only 124 miles (199 kilometers) above Mercury’s surface — but it was on the side of the planet farthest from the sun, engulfed in night darkness.
BepiColombo didn’t get a closer look at Mercury until it had already passed and the sunny side of the planet appeared. The closest image in this sequence is about 620 miles (1,000 km) from Mercury.
“It was very exciting to see the first BepiColombo images of Mercury, and to work on what we see,” David Rothrie, who leads the European Space Agency’s Mercury Surface and Installation Working Group, said in the statement. “It made me even more excited to study the high-quality scientific data that we should have when we’re in orbit around Mercury, because this is a planet we don’t fully understand yet.”
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