Looking hot! Spacecraft sends back amazingly detailed images of Mercury

PARIS, France — A spacecraft has relayed back remarkably detailed images of Mercury, our solar system’s closest planet to the Sun. The BepiColombo mission, conducted by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), executed its third of six gravity assist flybys of the first planet on June 19.

During the flyby, the spacecraft was able to capture images of a recently identified impact crater, as well as geological curiosities linked to tectonic activity and volcanic formations. These activities are part of the mission’s preparation for its expected arrival into Mercury’s orbit in 2025.

“Everything went very smoothly with the flyby and images from the monitoring cameras taken during the close approach phase of the flyby have been transmitted to the ground,” explains Ignacio Clerigo, ESA’s BepiColombo Spacecraft Operations Manager, in an agency release.

black and white pic.. closeup of the southern half Mercury,.. view of two satellite sticks
The image was taken by the Mercury Transfer Module’s monitoring camera 3, when the spacecraft was 11 780 km from the planet’s surface. Closest approach took place at 19:34 UT (21:34 CEST) on the night side of the planet at about 236 km altitude. The back of the Mercury Planetary Orbiter’s high-gain antenna and part of the spacecraft’s body is also visible in front of Mercury in this image. (credit: ESA/BepiColombo/MTM, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

The onboard monitoring cameras, which deliver black-and-white snapshots, captured these images. Numerous geological features are discernible in these images, including the newly identified Manley impact crater.

The spacecraft made its closest approach at 19:34 UTC (Coordinated Universal Time), which is 3:34 p.m. if you were living in New York (EST). At that time, the probe was flying approximately 236 kilometers (over 146 miles) above Mercury’s surface, on the planet’s night side.

Images of Mercury
A bounty of geological features, including the newly named Manley impact crater, are visible in this image of Mercury taken by the ESA/JAXA BepiColombo mission on 19 June 2023 as the spacecraft sped by for its third of three gravity assist maneuvers at the planet. (Credit: European Space Agency)

“While the next Mercury flyby isn’t until September 2024, there are still challenges to tackle in the intervening time: our next long solar electric propulsion ‘thruster arc’ is planned to start early August until mid-September,” says Clerigo. “In combination with the flybys, the thruster arcs are critical in helping BepiColombo brake against the enormous gravitational pull of the Sun before we can enter orbit around Mercury.”

South West News Service writer Dean Murray contributed to this report.

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