The European-Japanese space probe BepiColombo has sped past Mercury for the second time, taking photos of the innermost planet in the solar system. The first image, showing part of the probe and Mercury’s cratered surface, was taken from a distance of 920 kilometers. The probe later sped past the planet just 200 kilometers away. During the total of six flybys to Mercury, no photos can be taken with the high-resolution main camera because it is protected in the probe. So far, only the so-called monitoring cameras can take photos with a resolution of 1024 × 1024 pixels. ESA intends to publish more photos in the coming days.
Six short visits in advance
Mercury is also the actual target of BepiColombo, but before the probe can swing into an orbit, it has to fly past it several times and slow down. It started in October 2018 on its seven-year journey. With two satellites on deck, she is scheduled to examine the surface and magnetic field of the planet closest to the Sun from December 2025. The European-Japanese joint project with a total cost of around two billion euros is intended to help understand the origins of the solar system. So far, the probe has already flown past Earth once and Venus twice, and passed Mercury for the first time in the fall. It will zoom by four more times before it can enter orbit in late 2025.
The mission of the space agencies ESA and JAXA is named after the Italian mathematician Bepi Colombo (1920-1984), who early on calculated the basis for a trajectory to Mercury. The preparations for the mission have taken nearly 20 years. The reason is also the inhospitable conditions in the vicinity of Mercury: In order to enable the probe to survive in what the ESA calls “hellish environment”, new technology had to be developed. The journey is also extremely complicated, requiring more energy than a flight to Pluto. Although the distance from Earth to Pluto is much greater than that to Mercury, the gravitational pull of the Sun is much stronger on Mercury.
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