(ORDO NEWS) — New images released by the European Space Agency (ESA) on Monday (June 27) show the cratered surface of the solar system’s smallest planet, Mercury, captured during an ultra-close flyby of the BepiColombo spacecraft.
BepiColombo, a joint mission between ESA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), is currently on a seven-year cruise around the inner solar system, using the gravity of planets including Mercury, Venus and Earth to slow down and orbit Mercury in 2025.
Thursday (June 23) was the probe’s second flyby of Mercury over the rocky planet that will be its final destination.
As during the first meeting, which took place on October 1, 2021, the probe approached the planet at an extremely close distance – only 200 kilometers. This is closer than the two orbiters that make up the BepiColombo mission, which will orbit the planet upon arrival.
Since BepiColombo approached Mercury from the night side, the spacecraft was unable to photograph the planet at its closest approach. However, other instruments were turned on aboard the two orbiters, which measured the solar wind in the immediate vicinity of the spacecraft.
The solar wind is a stream of charged particles emitted by the Sun that travels through the entire solar system, causing space weather phenomena on Earth and other planets.
Both orbiters travel through space stowed on a transport module, so their high resolution cameras are hidden and cannot be used during the cruise phase.
The new images show many geological features, including numerous craters, volcanic flats and tectonic rock-like 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 1550 km wide crater was formed by a giant asteroid with a diameter of at least 100 km. In comparison, scientists estimate that the asteroid Chicxulub, which led to the extinction of the dinosaurs about 66 million years ago, was only 10 km wide.
BepiColombo is only the second vehicle in history to orbit Mercury, and the third to photograph it. The planet is notoriously hard to reach, as any spacecraft heading into the inner solar system is forced to constantly brake against the Sun’s gravitational pull.
Therefore, the mission engineers mapped out a long and winding trajectory that passes through several celestial bodies, the gravity of which slows down the spacecraft.
The NASA Messenger mission studied Mercury from 2011 to 2015. The probe observed a number of mysterious phenomena, including Mercury’s amazing magnetic field and the existence of ice in shadowed craters around the planet’s poles.
This ice persists in these regions, despite the fact that temperatures in the sun-exposed parts of the planet can reach a merciless 420 degrees Celsius. BepiColombo aims to shed more light on the mysteries of the planet.
The first probe to photograph Mercury was NASA’s Mariner 10, which made three flybys of the planet in the early 1970s while in orbit around the Sun. The next flight of BepiColombo to Mercury will take place in about a year. In the meantime, next month the device will make its closest approach to the Sun.
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