The BepiColombo, a joint Japanese and European space mission, has beamed back fresh images of Mercury from its second flyby to the planet, coming as close as just 200 kilometers above the surface. The spacecraft captured the planet’s mysterious world using its three monitoring cameras (MCAM).
The first image in which Mercury is illuminated was taken at around five minutes after close approach, at a distance of about 800 km. Images were taken for about 40 minutes after the close approach as the spacecraft moved away from the planet again. As the spacecraft flew from night side to day side, the scenery changed dramatically.
As the Sun rose, the cratered world came into view, casting shadows along the terminator the boundary between night and day and highlighting the topography of the terrain in a dramatic fashion.
Just a few minutes after the closest approach and with the sun shining from above, Mercury’s largest impact feature, the 1550 km-wide Caloris basin, swung into view for the first time, its highly-reflective lavas on its floor making it stand out against the darker background. The volcanic lava in and around Caloris is thought to post-date the formation of the basin itself by a hundred million years or so, and measuring and understanding the compositional differences between these is an important goal for BepiColombo.
“I punched the air when the first images came down, and I only got more and more excited after that. The images show beautiful details of Mercury, including one of my favorite craters, Heaney, for which I suggested the name a few years ago,” Jack Wright, a member of the MCAM team said in a statement.
The spacecraft is to conduct four more flybys around the planet, slowly lowering its orbit and slowing down before it enters the planet’s orbit in 2025.
Even though BepiColombo is currently in a ‘stacked’ cruise configuration, meaning many instruments cannot be fully operated during the brief flybys, they can still grab insights into the magnetic, plasma, and particle environment around the spacecraft, from locations not normally accessible during an orbital mission.
While the science campaign will begin once the probe is in Mercury’s orbit, for now, revel in the beautiful images snapped by the probe of the innermost planet in our solar system.