The joint European-Japanese BepiColombo mission brought us an exciting image this week: an up-close and personal view of the mysterious planet Mercury. The image was captured on 1 October 2021 as the spacecraft flew past the planet and shows the planet's many craters and volcanic eruptions.
"The image was taken at 23:44:12 UTC by the Mercury Transfer Module’s Monitoring Camera 2, when the spacecraft was about 2418 km from Mercury. The closest approach of about 199 km took place shortly before, at 23:34 UTC.," wrote the European Space Agency in a statement. "In this view, north is towards the lower right. The cameras provide black-and-white snapshots in 1024 x 1024 pixel resolution."
Oddly enough, the image also captured the spacecraft’s antennas and magnetometer boom. The picture marks a significant milestone in space as only two probes have ever traveled to Mercury: Mariner 10, in 1974 and 1975, and MESSENGER, from 2011 to 2015.
Elsa Montagnon, Spacecraft Operations Manager for the mission called the flyby mission "flawless" and David Rothery of the UK’s Open University who leads ESA’s Mercury Surface and Composition Working Group added that the team was enthusiastically awaiting the science data that they should soon get when they are in orbit around Mercury.
This is because up to now Mercury has remained a bit of a mystery to space explorers. This will not be the case for long though, as BepiColombo’s two science orbiters – ESA’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter and JAXA’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter – will study all aspects of the planet including its core and exosphere, to better understand it.
They will also map the surface of Mercury and analyze its composition to learn more about its origins and discover if the theory that it may have begun as a larger body that was stripped of by a giant impact is valid.
BepiColombo's main science mission will begin around early 2026. There are 9 planetary flybys scheduled, one at Earth, two at Venus, and six at Mercury. The next Mercury flyby will take place on 23 June 2022.