The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

European spacecraft reveals rare images of Mercury’s craters after a ‘flawless’ flyby

This image of the planet Mercury taken by the joint European-Japanese BepiColombo spacecraft Mercury Transfer Module’s Monitoring Camera 2 on Oct. 1, 2021. (European Space Agency/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

LONDON — Europe’s space mission to the smallest and least explored terrestrial planet in our solar system, Mercury, sent back its first images of the planet after a flyby.

The BepiColombo joint mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency comprises a spacecraft containing two orbiters. It was launched in 2018 and will take seven years to arrive at its destination in late 2025.

The black-and-white images were taken Friday and published Saturday after the spacecraft flew past the innermost planet of the solar system to undertake a gravity assist maneuver — essentially using gravitational pull to slow the spacecraft.

The images, taken by the spacecraft’s monitoring cameras about 1,500 miles from Mercury, show part of the planet’s northern hemisphere, which has been flooded by lava, and a smoother and brighter area characterizing the plains around a large crater, the ESA said. The pictures also show some of the spacecraft’s structural elements, including its antennas and magnetometer boom. A magnetometer is an observational instrument.

Mercury’s surface is dark almost everywhere and was formed billions of years ago by vast outpourings of lava, which produced a scarred and cratered surface that at first glance can resemble the Earth’s moon, the ESA said.

BepiColombo will study these features once in orbit around the planet, along with Mercury’s magnetic field, composition, geophysics, atmosphere and history. It also will try to perform a test of Einstein’s theory of general relativity while enduring temperatures higher than 660 F (349 °C).

“The flyby was flawless from the spacecraft point of view, and it’s incredible to finally see our target planet,” said Elsa Montagnon, spacecraft operations manager for the mission, in a statement.

Companies in the Cosmos

This mission was the first of six planned “gravitational flybys” of Mercury, each passing honing the spacecrafts’ trajectory before the craft can be caught by Mercury’s gravity and enter its orbit. To do so, BepiColombo must approach the planet on a precise path, which scientists have spent years meticulously calculating.

The mission is named after the Italian scientist Giuseppe ‘Bepi’ Colombo, who is credited with helping to develop the gravity assist maneuver that NASA’s Mariner 10, the first spacecraft sent to study Mercury, undertook when it flew by the planet in 1974.

Keen night-sky watchers can follow the mission’s travels with its next Mercury flyby due on June 23, the ESA said. In the meantime, they can expect more rare images to be released in the coming days.