The European-Japanese BepiColombo spacecraft has sent back its first images of Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun, the European Space Agency said on Saturday.
The images were obtained nearly three years after the unmanned mission vessel was launched on an Ariane 5 rocket.
ESA said in a statement that cameras attached to BepiColombo provided black-and-white images.
But as the spacecraft approached the night side of the planet, the closest approach to the planet, conditions were “not ideal” for taking images at an altitude of 199 kilometers (124 mi), so the closest was by about 1,000 kilometers.
The area shown is part of Mercury’s northern hemisphere, which includes large craters and an area filled with lava from billions of years ago.
“From the spacecraft’s point of view the flyby was flawless, and it’s incredible to see our target planet at the end,” said Elsa Montagne, spacecraft operations manager for the mission.
Above: This region is part of Mercury’s northern hemisphere, including Situ Planitia which has been filled with lava. The round region that appears smoother and brighter than the rest of the space around Calvino Crater is the Rudaki Plain. The Lermontv crater is also visible. The 166-km-wide crater appears bright because it contains ‘hollows’, unique features of the minor planet that allow volatile elements to escape into space.
The BepiColombo mission will study all aspects of this mysterious inner planet, from its core to surface processes, magnetic fields and exosphere, “to better understand the origin and evolution of a planet closer to its parent star,” the agency said. he said.
Mercury is also the only rocky planet that orbits the Sun next to us to have a magnetic field.
The magnetic fields are generated by a liquid core, but given its size, Mercury should have cooled and solidified by now, as Mars did.
This discrepancy may be due to some characteristics of the core’s structure, something BepiColombo’s instruments will measure with far greater accuracy than they have ever been possible.
On its surface, Mercury is the planet of extremes, rotating between hot days of about 430 °C (more than 800 °F) to super-frosty nights of minus 180C (minus 290F).
Those days and nights last for about three Earth months.
Earlier missions have detected evidence of ice in the deepest trenches of the planet’s polar craters.
Scientists speculate that it may have been deposited by comets that crashed on the surface of Mercury.
BepiColombo is due to make five more flybys of Mercury during a complex trajectory that will also see the satellite fly over Venus and Earth.
It could not be sent directly to Mercury, because the pull of the Sun is so strong that successfully positioning the satellite would require a large braking maneuver, requiring a lot of fuel for a spacecraft of this size. The mission will last for about five years.
The gravity exerted by Earth and Venus – known as a gravity assist – allows it to ‘naturally’ slow down during its journey.
© Agence France-Presse