Spectacular photographs of Mercury.
The joint ESA/JAXA mission, BepiColombo, completed its third of six gravity-assist flybys around Mercury, capturing striking images of a recently named crater and other geological features. The mission is on course for a Mercury orbit entry in 2025.
The spacecraft made its closest approach at 19:34 UTC on 19 June 2023, passing 236 km above the planet’s dark side. Ignacio Clerigo, ESA’s BepiColombo Spacecraft Operations Manager, reported that everything progressed smoothly, and pictures from the flyby have been transmitted to Earth.
BepiColombo Mission’s Spectacular Photographs
Rising out of the nightside this shadowy view taken about 15 mins after close approach accentuates the heights of snaking tectonic scarps and the depths of craters
— BepiColombo (@BepiColombo) June 20, 2023
Between the next Mercury flyby, slated for September 2024, and now, BepiColombo will face a series of challenges. The spacecraft will undergo a long solar electric propulsion phase, called a ‘thruster arc’, to gradually brake against the Sun’s intense gravitational pull, preparing it for Mercury orbit.
During the recent encounter, BepiColombo’s monitoring camera 3 captured numerous images of the rocky planet. These photos offer detailed snapshots and were downloaded overnight until early this morning. Three ‘early release’ images have been shared.
New Geological Discoveries
As BepiColombo approached the planet’s night side, several geological features became visible after the closest approach. The images display a variety of geological features, including a newly named crater.
A large 218 km-wide peak-ring impact crater visible in the images has been recently named ‘Manley’ by the International Astronomical Union’s Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature, in honor of Jamaican artist Edna Manley (1900–1987).
Future Research and Studies
While the nature of the dark material associated with Manley Crater is not visible in these images, it will be a key subject of exploration for BepiColombo from orbit. The mission will seek to measure its carbon content and associated minerals to learn more about Mercury’s geological history.
Moreover, one of the planet’s most spectacular geological thrust systems, Beagle Rupes, is visible near the planet’s terminator. BepiColombo imaging team members are currently debating the influences of volcanism and tectonism shaping this region.
BepiColombo has now begun to recede from the planet. However, its science instruments remained operational during the flyby, recording the magnetic, plasma, and particle environment around the spacecraft. These recordings will aid scientists in unlocking the secrets of the planet’s place in Solar System evolution.
Preparations are already underway for the next ‘thrust arc’ starting in early August, lasting approximately six weeks. BepiColombo’s main science mission will commence in early 2026, shedding light on the many mysteries of Mercury.