Mercury-bound BepiColombo captures detailed images of planet's craters and lava flows

The spacecraft obtained stunning new images of Mercury during its third close flyby on June 19.  
Mrigakshi Dixit
Images captured by the Mercury-bound probe.
Images captured by the Mercury-bound probe.

ESA/BepiColombo/MTM, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO 

BepiColombo, a Mercury-bound probe, has given us sights of our Sun's closest planet.

The spacecraft obtained some stunning new images of the rocky world during its third close flyby of Mercury on Monday, June 19.  

The European Space Agency(ESA) released the first batch of these new images soon after the closest approach. The black and white images reveal in high detail the planet's heavily cratered surface, along with other notable tectonic and volcanic features. 

“Mercury’s heavily cratered surface records a 4.6 billion year history of asteroid and comet bombardment, which together with unique tectonic and volcanic curiosities will help scientists unlock the secrets of the planet’s place in Solar System evolution,” said Jack Wright, who is a member of the BepiColombo MCAM imaging team, in an ESA release.

What do the images depict? 

The probe flew within 150 miles(236 kilometers) of Mercury's surface during its third gravity-assist flyby. The mission team took use of this chance to acquire data and images of this solar system's innermost planet.

A monitoring camera caught a plethora of geological features in 10 sets of photos, the first three of which were released by the ESA. The photographs depict a variety of characteristics, including craters, old volcanic ridges, and lava flows.

The probe also documented a crater, which has been named Edna Manley by the International Astronomical Union's Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature after a Jamaican/British artist who died in 1987. 

"During our image planning for the flyby, we realized this large crater would be in view, but it didn't yet have a name," said David Rothery, Professor of Planetary Geosciences at the UK's Open University.

Rothery, who is part of this mission’s science imaging team, further explained: "It will clearly be of interest for BepiColombo scientists in the future because it has excavated dark 'low-reflectance material' that may be remnants of Mercury's early carbon-rich crust. In addition, the basin floor within its interior has been flooded by smooth lava, demonstrative of Mercury's prolonged history of volcanic activity.”

Mercury-bound BepiColombo captures detailed images of planet's craters and lava flows
Geological features captured in set of the images.

Other notable features 

Beagle Rupes, a 370-mile-long (600-kilometer) cliff that presumably developed billions of years ago as young Mercury cooled and contracted, was another notable feature. The cliff cuts across Sveinsdóttir, which is a remarkably elongated crater.

This cliff was discovered by NASA's Messenger spacecraft, which orbited Mercury between 2011 and 2015. The mission team will now compare the two photographs to have a better understanding of the feature. 

Not just that, but the three images show a variety of ancient impact basins that were most likely filled with volcanic lavas when the planet was young and tectonically active – around the first billion years of its existence. 

The team highlighted that BepiColombo could study this region to further understand Mercury’s tectonic history.

Next flyby is in September 2024

Apart from the images, the mission team activated the probe's science instruments to collect data on the magnetic, plasma, and particle environments around the spacecraft. 

As BepiColombo retreated from the planet, a 'farewell Mercury' sequence of photos was also captured from afar and is yet to be released. 

The next Mercury flyby will take place in September 2024.

BepiColombo is about to undergo one of the most difficult parts of its long space voyage, in which the spacecraft will have to utilize solar electric propulsion to constantly brake against the Sun's strong gravitational pull. 

This joint mission was launched in 2018 by the ESA and JAXA space companies. In its long voyage, the probe will use the gravity of the planets Earth, Venus, and Mercury to transition from the sun's orbit to Mercury's orbit in late 2025. 

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