During the latest gravity assistance maneuver, the BepiColombo spacecraft came within 200 km of the planet and snapped new photographs revealing intricate features on the surface of Mercury, the smallest planet in our solar system.
A view of Mercury captured by ESA/JAXA’s BepiColombo mission during a gravity assistance maneuver on June 23, 2022, shows the planet’s rich geological landscape and an unprecedented view of the smallest planet in our solar system, a little bigger than Earth’s Moon, and not the hottest planet to the sun despite being the closest to it.
Mercury Transfer Module’s Monitoring Camera 2 captured this image at 09:49:22 UTC on June 23, 2022, when the spacecraft was approximately 920 km from Mercury’s surface. Just before 09:44 UTC, the spacecraft came within 200 km of the planet. North is roughly to the top right in this image.
These cameras offer 1024 x 1024 pixels of resolution for black-and-white snapshots. An interpolation of 2048 x 2048 pixels has been applied to improve the sharpness of the image. You can also see some imaging artifacts, such as horizontal stripes.
A small section of the medium-gain antenna can also be seen at the bottom right, as well as the magnetometer boom spanning the bottom left to top right. The Magnetometer is a scientific instrument used to analyze the magnetospheres of planets.
In the photograph, we see how the spacecraft’s magnetometer boom roughly follows the “terminator”– the boundary between the night and day sides of the planet.
In this photograph, the lighting conditions are quite different from those recorded on Mercury by NASA’s MESSENGER mission.
The smooth terrains stand out more as compared to the older rough terrains. Several large impact craters can also clearly be seen along with other geological features, including a 200 km wide multi-ringed basin partially obscured by the magnetometer boom.
Towards the magnetometer boom, a prominent, straight scarp can be seen towards the bottom of the image. In this image, we can see about 170 km of its 200 km length and 2 km of its height.
The faults are part of Mercury’s global fault system. It has recently been named “Challenger Rupes” by the International Astronomical Union Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature.
Scientists had hoped it would be visible in MCAM images during this swingby.
Mercury’s escarpments continue to be named after scientific expeditions and ships used in voyages of discovery. Here, after HMS Challenger, which laid the foundations of modern oceanography when it surveyed the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and their floors between 1872 and 1876.
A 140 km wide unnamed crater can be seen to the right of Challenger Rupes. A bright spot inside the rim near one o’clock catches the eye.
Scientists believe that this is ejecta from a relatively fresh impact crater. Lavas extend outward from the crater floor into the surrounding plains (Catuilla Planum). In addition to the fault scarps parallel to Challenger Rupes, the crater floor is also cut by two prominent ridges.
As part of BepiColombo’s main mission in 2026, the spacecraft will explore the Beagle Rupes fault system (which is in darkness in this photograph and also hidden by the magnetometer boom), which is certain to offer a fascinating look at Mercury’s tectonic history.
At the top right of the image, you can see a 130 km-wide crater named Eminescu, which is lit up by its bright central peak when viewed from this angle.
BepiColombo will find this crater particularly interesting to study due to its ‘hollows,’ a geological feature unique to Mercury.
Xiao Zhao crater is clearly visible on the right side of the image, which is 24 km wide and stands out against the darker background. ‘Rays’ are formed by material ejected by the impact event that carved out the crater, which is destined to fade away within a few hundred million years.
This indicates that Xiao Zhao is an impact crater on Mercury that formed recently. The brief glimpse above is just the beginning of the detailed geology that BepiColombo will learn more about from orbit.
This is the second gravity assist maneuver at Mercury and the fifth of nine flybys overall. To help guide the satellite’s course towards Mercury orbit in 2025, BepiColombo conducts six flybys of Mercury, two at Venus, and one at Earth during its seven-year cruise to the smallest planet in the Solar System.
JAXA’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter and the ESA’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter are aboard the Mercury Transfer Module.
From complementary orbits, each of these will study Mercury from every angle. Scientists aim to understand better the planet’s core to surface processes, magnetic field, and exosphere to understand better how the planet evolved near its star.
BepiColombo also recorded the first-ever sound coming from Mercury, and you can listen to the eerie melody by clicking here.
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