Visiting Mercury – BepiColombo flies by Earth
Mercury is the smallest planet in the solar system, only slightly larger than Earth’s Moon. It is also the closest to the Sun, as well as being moonless and ringless. One day on Mercury (the time it takes for Mercury to rotate or spin once with respect to the stars) takes 59 Earth days. One day-night cycle on Mercury takes 175.97 Earth days. Mercury makes a complete orbit around the Sun (a year in Mercury time) in just 88 Earth days.
In the past, two spacecraft have visited Mercury. NASA’s Mariner 10 was the first spacecraft to visit the planet and flew by Mercury twice in 1974 and 1975, mapping out its surface and studying its atmosphere and magnetic field. Then, NASA’s Messenger was the first to orbit Mercury in 2011, and mapped 100 percent of its surface in 2013.
Now, its the turn of European Space Agency’s (ESA) and Japaneses Space Agency’s (JAXA) BepiColombo, on its first mission to Mercury. It was launched on October 20, 2018, on a seven year journey and will arrive at Mercury in 2025. The mission comprises of two spacecraft: the Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) and the Mercury Magnetoshpere Orbiter (Mio).
To enable it to get to Mercury and enter its orbit, BepiColombo has to undertake a number of planetary fly-bys. The mission completed its first flyby on April 10, when it came less than 12,700 km from Earth. It captured stunning images of Earth just before closest approach showing our planet as we face one of the most challenging times in recent history.