The BepiColombo probe has beamed back its first close-up images of Mercury, and they are stunning!
The closest of images were taken from an altitude of 1000km above the planet’s surface and pack an astonishing amount of detail. The planet’s northern hemisphere, including an area flooded by lava billions of years ago, and several large craters were captured in the images.
Launched in October 2018, aboard an Ariane rocket, the mission was a joint effort between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). After a three-year-long journey, the probe has finally reached the closest planet in the Solar System to the Sun.
The probe initially arrived on the dark side of the planet on the first of several planned flybys and descended to an altitude of just 200 km. However, due to the lack of light, images couldn’t be taken just then.
“The flyby was flawless from the spacecraft point of view, and it’s incredible to finally see our target planet,” said Elsa Montagnon, the mission’s Spacecraft Operations Manager.
Mission control has planned a further five such flybys over the next four years to slow down the spacecraft using Mercury’s gravitational pull. The objective is to slow down the craft enough to eventually place it into a stable orbit around the planet.
Once the probe is in a stable orbit, ESA’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter and JAXA’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter, which are both onboard the probe will be released. The pair will eventually study all aspects of Mercury, including its core, magnetic field, exosphere, and surface processes, to better understand the planet’s origins and evolution, according to the ESA.
BepiColombo is only the third mission to Mercury, after NASA’s Mariner 10 in the early 70s, and Messenger in the early 00s. On its long journey, the probe also briefly visited Venus and sent back some stunning shots of Earth’s twin.
Cover Image: ESA/JAXA