The Europe-Japan space mission captures the first images of Mercury
The Euro-Japanese space probe BepiColombo returned its first images of Mercury, the planet closest to the Sun, the European Space Agency announced on Saturday.
The images were obtained almost three years after the launch of the unmanned mission vessel aboard an Ariane 5 rocket.
Cameras attached to the BepiColombo provided black and white images, ESA said in a statement.
But when the spacecraft arrived on the night side of the planet, conditions were “not ideal” for taking images on its closest approach to the planet, at an altitude of 199 kilometers (124 miles), so the nearest was about 1000 km.
The region shown is part of the northern hemisphere of Mercury, comprising large craters and an area flooded by lava billions of years ago.
“The flyby was flawless from a spacecraft perspective, and it’s amazing to finally see our target planet,” said Elsa Montagnon, spacecraft operations manager for the mission.
The BepiColombo mission will study all aspects of this mysterious inner planet, from its nucleus to surface processes, including the magnetic field and the exosphere, “to better understand the origin and evolution of a planet close to its mother star, “the agency said.
Mercury is also the only rocky planet orbiting the Sun next to ours to have a magnetic field.
Magnetic fields are generated by a liquid core, but given its size, Mercury’s should have turned cold and solid, as Mars did.
This anomaly could be due to a feature of the composition of the nucleus, something that BepiColombo’s instruments will measure with much greater accuracy than has been possible so far.
On its surface, Mercury is a planet of extremes, oscillating between hot days of around 430 degrees Celsius (over 800 degrees Fahrenheit) to very freezing nights of minus 180C (minus 290F).
These days and nights each last nearly three Earth months.
Previous missions have detected traces of ice in the deepest recesses of the planet’s polar craters.
Scientists believe it may have accumulated due to comets crashing into Mercury’s surface.
BepiColombo is to perform five more overflights of Mercury in a complex trajectory that will also see the satellite fly over Venus and Earth.
It could not be sent directly to Mercury, as the Sun’s pull is so strong that a huge braking maneuver would be required to successfully place the satellite, requiring too much fuel for a spacecraft of this size. The mission will last about five more years.
The gravity exerted by the Earth and Venus – known as gravitational assist – allows it to slow down “naturally” during its journey.
juc / pvh / dd