Paris: BepiColombo successfully completed its first of its six encounters with Mercury, from an altitude of 200 km.
BepiColombo is a joint mission of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). It is on its way to Mercury. The spacecraft will enter the planet’s orbit in 2025.
It made an encounter with Mercury at 23.34 p.m. on Friday (5.04 a.m. Saturday India time). It was at an altitude of about 200 km. Its Imagery and science data will give scientists a first taste of what is to come.
“Our #MercuryFlyby went well!” the mission team posted on Twitter on Saturday.
It is difficult to take high-resolution imagery with the main science camera during the flybys. The transfer module shields while the spacecraft is in cruise configuration.
However, the Mercury Transfer Module’s Monitoring Camera 2 took an image, when the spacecraft was about 2,418 km from Mercury, the ESA said in a statement.
“Part of Mercury’s northern hemisphere including Sihtu Planitia appears in the photograph. A round area smoother and brighter than its surroundings characterises the plains around the Calvino crater. These are the Rudaki Plains,” it added.
Nonetheless, The 166 km-wide Lermontov crater looks bright. It contains features unique to Mercury called ‘hollows’. This is where volatile elements are escaping to space. It also has a vent where volcanic explosions have occurred.
However, BepiColombo will study these types of features once in orbit around the planet, the ESA said.
The camera provided black-and-white snapshots in 1024 x 1024 pixel resolution. Some images “are somewhat overexposed”, “more images with different exposure settings” will be shared later, the mission team said.
Mercury has a heavily cratered surface much like the appearance of Earth’s Moon, plotting its 4.6 billion year history. Mapping the surface of Mercury and analysing its composition will help scientists understand more about its formation and evolution.
The BepiColombo mission comprises two science orbiters. These will be delivered into orbits around the planet by the Mercury Transfer Module in 2025.
The ESA-led Mercury Planetary Orbiter and the JAXA-led Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter, Mio, will study all aspects of this mysterious inner planet from its core to surface processes, magnetic field and exosphere, to better understand the origin and evolution of a planet close to its parent star.
BepiColombo will make use of nine planetary flybys in total: one at Earth, two at Venus, and six at Mercury, together with the spacecraft’s solar electric propulsion system, to help steer into Mercury orbit.
In August, BepiColombo zipped past Venus, taking black-and-white snapshots in 1024 x 1024 pixel resolution.