Almost three years after its launch, the BepiColombo space probe took pictures of the planet Mercury for the first time. The European Space Agency ESA announced on Saturday that the probe had sent photos to Earth after its first flyby of Mercury. The ESA announced on its website that it was not possible to take high-resolution images with the main camera during the flyby. This camera does not have a clear view of Mercury because a transfer module is in the way in flight mode.
Difficult lighting conditions
Instead, two of the three so-called monitoring cameras provided black and white images of the planet’s surface. While the space probe initially flew past Mercury at an altitude of almost 200 kilometers on the night side of the planet, the conditions were not ideal for this.
Therefore, a little later, more pictures were taken from a distance of about a thousand kilometers. The transfer module is equipped with a total of three monitor cameras that deliver snapshots with a resolution of 1024 × 1024 pixels. In the course of the coming week, ESA plans to publish the first Mercury images from BepiColombo. News about the mission can be found on Twitter under the hashtags #BepiColombo and #MercuryFlyby.
BepiColombo is the most difficult and ambitious project of the European space agency ESA and its Japanese partner organization Jaxa. The probe was launched on October 20, 2018 from the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana for Mercury. Mercury is the planet of the solar system that is closest to the sun. The temperatures fluctuate between minus 180 degrees and plus 430 degrees Celsius. This places very special demands on the heat protection of the spacecraft and the instruments.
The project is the third mission to Mercury and the first under the direction of ESA. So far, only two NASA missions have reached Mercury: In the 1970s, the Mariner 10 probe explored the planet. The Italian scientist Giuseppe “Bepi” Colombo, after whom the current ESA mission is named, played a key role in this mission.
Lots of open questions
The second NASA mission with the Messenger probe took place from 2011 to 2015. It brought surprising results that challenged previous theories. Scientists ask, among other things, why Mercury has a magnetic field similar to Earth, whether there is ice or water on the planet and what is happening in the craters and inside the planet. BepiColombo aims to find answers to these questions.