Mercury Is Getting A Spacecraft Closeup Tomorrow

The BepiColombo mission is swinging by Mercury for its second close look tomorrow (June 23) and will zoom by only 125 miles (200 km) above the surface. Mercury is the closest planet to the sun and studying it is crucial to figuring out more about the history of rocky planets like our Earth.

The flyby will primarily be used, however, to refine BepiColombo’s trajectory to make sure it is on the right path for long-term investigations. Still, science will remain ongoing during this close approach, including pictures of the planet’s surface, and environmental monitoring of magnetic fields, superheated gas called plasma, and particles.

This environmental monitoring is good for understanding how the intense energy of the sun interacts with the planet, which again, has implications for understanding such influences on Earth.

“For the closest images it should be possible to identify large impact craters and other prominent geological features linked to tectonic and volcanic activity such as scarps, wrinkle ridges and lava plains on the planet’s surface,” the European Space Agency, which is participating in this mission along with Japan, said in a statement.

“Mercury’s heavily cratered surface records a 4.6 billion year history of asteroid and comet bombardment, which together with unique tectonic and volcanic curiosities will help scientists unlock the secrets of the planet’s place in solar system evolution,” ESA added.

Camera images will be available at an altitude of roughly 500 miles, as the closest approach will be taking place on the nightside of Mercury and the cameras are designed for daylight conditions, ESA noted.

The spacecraft will do numerous flybys like this before it is put on the correct path for orbiting (or circling) Mercury in 2025. While the flybys mean more time in space for BepiColombo, they have the value of saving fuel and allowing the spacecraft to carry more instruments for studying this intriguing world.

The flyby, added Johannes Benkhoff, ESA’s BepiColombo project scientist, will also zoom by a zone that will not be available during orbital operations. It has another value to investigators as well, Benkhoff noted in the release: the engineering team will get a “head start” on prepping the spacecraft for its orbiting mission and collecting science “as quickly and smoothly as possible.”

You can follow the maneuvers tomorrow on Twitter using@Essaoperations and @bepicolombo. The closest approach is set for 5:44 am EDT (9:44 GMT).

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