ESA's BepiColombo spacecraft reached its main scientific target and sent some incredible rare Mercury images. Credit: ESA

BepiColombo Snaps First Mercury Images Revealing Fascinating Features

Once it enters orbit, the spacecraft will explore the surface of Mercury, look for ice deposits, determine the structure of the planet and the properties of its magnetosphere and exosphere.

The BepiColombo probe successfully completed the first gravitational maneuver near its target, flying at a minimum distance of 199 kilometers from Mercury. During the flight, the spacecraft received a number of images of the surface of the planet and other scientific data. The first batch of rare Mercury images has already been released.


ESA’s BepiColombo sent out its first Mercury images

Previous Mercury missions

BepiColombo is the third interplanetary mission to explore Mercury. Until now, only two spacecraft have visited the planet – Mariner 10 in the mid-1970s, which made only three flights near the planet, and Messenger, which, after several flights in 2011, entered the orbit and studied it for four years. The BepiColombo mission, developed by experts from the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), is designed to fill some of the missing data on Mercury.

Devices of the BepiColombo mission: flight module, European orbital probe MPO, sun shield, Japanese magnetospheric probe MMO. Credit: ESA
Devices of the BepiColombo mission: flight module, European orbital probe MPO, sun shield, Japanese magnetospheric probe MMO. Credit: ESA

Launch

It was launched in October 2018, when the European MPO (Mercury Planetary Orbiter), the Japanese MMO (Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter), and the MTM flight module, which will deliver the devices to the planet, went into space.

Main goals

After arriving at the planet, the spacecraft will explore its surface, look for ice deposits, determine the structure of the planet and the properties of its magnetosphere and exosphere.

Gravity assist maneuvers

For three years, “BepiColombo” made a number of gravity assist maneuvers near the Earth and Venus, and on October 1, 2021, the vehicle performed the first gravity assist maneuver near Mercury, finding itself at a minimum distance of 199 kilometers from the planet’s surface.

The new Mercury images show some of the known craters on the planet. Credit: ESA/JAXA/BepiColombo
The new Mercury images show some of the known craters on the planet. Credit: ESA/JAXA/BepiColombo

Mercury Images and data obtained

During the flight, scientific instruments collected data about the planet, but the survey was carried out only from a distance of about a thousand kilometers from Mercury since the flight passed over the night side of the planet. The obtained frames show the craters and plains of the planet, as well as elements of the apparatus, for example, antennas.

When will the science program begin?

The main science program will begin in early 2026 and last for a year. Until that moment, the spacecraft will have to make five more flights past the planet, and in December 2025, the probes will enter working polar orbits.

Another image from BepiColombo with annotated regions on the planet's surface. Credit: ESA/JAXA/BepiColombo
Another Mercury image from BepiColombo with annotated regions on the planet’s surface. Credit: ESA/JAXA/BepiColombo

Instruments/Devices

The BepiColombo consists of three devices – the MTM (Mercury Transfer Module) and MPO (Mercury Planetary Orbiter) orbital module, created by European engineers, and another MMO (Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter) orbital module, created by specialists from Japan.

Several missions at once

The flight module with four ion engines is responsible for the flight to the planet, and the other two probes, which upon arrival will separate and enter two different polar orbits, will conduct scientific research. The missions of the vehicles are also different – MPO will explore the surface of the planet, and MMO will concentrate on studying its magnetic field and magnetosphere.

Part of the spacecraft and Mercury in the background. Credit: ESA/JAXA/BepiColombo
Part of the spacecraft and Mercury in the background. Credit: ESA/JAXA/BepiColombo

Messenger Mission

Although the Messenger already had similar instruments for research, this probe flew in a very elongated orbit and came close to the surface of Mercury only in the region of the North Pole. Therefore, Messenger measured the chemical composition of the surface only in the vicinity of the North Pole.

What makes BepiColombo’s mission different and better?

BepiColombo’s orbit will also be elliptical, but not so elongated, and its closest point to the surface will be at the equator. Therefore, for the first time, our gamma spectrometer will be able to clearly see the vicinity of the South Pole and the southern hemisphere as a whole. That is, we will be able to obtain the same data for the southern hemisphere that Messenger received for the northern one, and partially verify the data of Messenger.


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Sources:

ESA. (n.d.). BepiColombo’s first views of Mercury.
ESA. (n.d.). Sights and sounds of a venus flyby. Ю
Malik, T. (2021, October 2). Mercury looks stunning in this 1st flyby photo from Europe and Japan’s Bepicolombo Mission. Space.com.
Suliman, A. (2021, October 2). European spacecraft reveals rare images of Mercury’s craters after a ‘flawless’ flyby. The Washington Post.

Written by Vladislav Tchakarov

Hello, my name is Vladislav and I am glad to have you here on Curiosmos. My experience as a freelance writer began in 2018 but I have been part of the Curiosmos family since mid-2020. As a history student, I have a strong passion for history and science, and the opportunity to research and write in this field on a daily basis is a dream come true.

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