The BepiColombo mission will make its first flight around Mercury on Friday around 7:34 p.m. It will travel 200 kilometers from the planet’s surface. During the flight, BepiColombo will collect scientific data and images and send them back to Earth.
The mission will actually have two probes in orbit around Mercury: the Mercury Orbiter led by ESA and the Mercury Magnetosphere Orbiter led by JAXA, MIO. These orbitals will remain in the current configuration with the Mercury transmitter unit until deployment in 2025.
As the Bepicolombo spacecraft approaches Mercury and begins to orbit, part of the Mercury Transfer Module spacecraft separates and two orbits begin to orbit the planet.
Both probes will collect a year’s worth of data to help scientists better understand this mysterious little planet, such as determining more about the processes occurring on its surface and its magnetic field. This information could reveal the origin and evolution of the planet closest to the Sun.
During Friday’s flight, the spacecraft’s main camera will be shielded and will not be able to take high-resolution images. However, two of the spacecraft’s three surveillance cameras will photograph the planet’s northern and southern hemispheres as they approach 1,000 kilometers (621 miles).
BepiColombo will fly around the planet at night, so the images won’t be able to show you much detail the next time you zoom in.
The mission team expects that the images will show large archaeological craters scattered across the surface of Mercury, like our moon. Scientists can use the images to map Mercury’s surface and learn more about the planet’s composition.
During the flight, some instruments will be turned on from both orbits to get an initial look at Mercury’s magnetic field, plasma and particles.
The voyage is an event calculated on the 101st anniversary of the birth of the Italian scientist and engineer Giuseppe “Pepe” Colomb, better known as the Expedition. Colombo’s work helped explain Mercury’s orbit around the sun and allowed NASA’s Mariner 10 spacecraft to fly three flights of Mercury instead of one, using Venus’ own gravitational assist. They found that the point at which the spacecraft flies around the planets can actually help enable future flights.
Mariner 10 was the first spacecraft sent to study Mercury and successfully completed three flights in 1974 and 1975. Subsequently, NASA sent its Messenger spacecraft to make three flights of Mercury in 2008 and 2009 and orbit the planet between 2011 and 2015.
BepiColombo will now operate as the second and most comprehensive mission in Mercury’s orbit, providing scientists with the best possible information to unravel the planet’s mysteries.
“We are really looking forward to seeing the first results very close to the surface of Mercury,” Johannes Benkoff, ESA BepiColombo project scientist, said in a statement. “When I started working as a project scientist at BepiColombo in January 2008, NASA Messenger completed its first flight around Mercury. Now it’s our turn. It feels great!”
Little is known about Mercury’s history, surface, or atmosphere, which is extremely difficult to study due to its proximity to the Sun. It is the least explored of the four rocky planets in the inner solar system, including Venus, Earth, and Mars. The sun’s rays behind Mercury make the tiny planet difficult to see from Earth.
The BepiColombo will have to continuously burn xenon gas from two of the four engines specially designed for continuous braking against the massive gravitational force of the sun. Its distance from Earth also makes it difficult to reach – more energy is needed for BepiColombo to “fall” toward the planet than when it sends a mission to Pluto.
A heat shield and titanium insulation were also installed to protect the spacecraft from extreme heat of up to 350 degrees Celsius.
Instruments from these two orbits will study the ice in the planet’s polar craters, why it contains a magnetic field and the nature of the “cavities” on the planet’s surface.
Mercury is full of mystery for such a small planet, which is slightly larger than our moon. Scientists know that temperatures can reach 430 degrees Celsius (800 degrees Fahrenheit) during the day, but the planet’s thin atmosphere means it can dip as low as minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 180 degrees Celsius) at night.
Although Mercury is the closest planet to the sun at an average distance of 36 million miles (58 million kilometers) from our star, the hottest planet in our solar system is Venus due to its dense atmosphere. However, Mercury is certainly the fastest of the planets, orbiting every 88 days in one orbit around the sun – which is why it is named after the fast-winged messenger of the Roman gods.
If we could stand on the surface of Mercury, the sun would appear three times larger than the Earth, and the sunlight would be blind because it is seven times brighter.
Mercury’s unusual rotation and elliptical orbit around the sun mean that our star in some parts of the planet appears to rise rapidly, set and then rise again, and a similar phenomenon occurs at sunset.
Rob Pichetta contributed to this report.
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