BepiColombo snaps first ‘selfie’ in space en route to sweltering Mercury

22 Oct 2018

The ESA-JAXA BepiColombo mission to Mercury lifts off from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. Image: ESA/S Corvaja

ESA and JAXA’s BepiColombo spacecraft is now well on its way to Mercury to further explore a planet where few spacecraft have gone before.

As the sun’s nearest planetary neighbour where surface temperatures can reach up to 350 degrees Celsius, Mercury has only ever been analysed in detail by orbiting spacecraft twice. However, a new collaborative mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japanese space agency (JAXA) is about to change that.

Successfully launched on 20 October aboard an Ariane 5 rocket, the BepiColombo mission will use Earth’s gravitational field as a slingshot in 2020 before arriving for the first Mercury flyby a little under three years from now. It will then enter the planet’s orbit in December 2025 and launch two spacecraft including ESA’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter and JAXA’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter.

Now, as it makes its journey to the fiery planet, ESA has revealed BepiColombo’s first ‘selfie’ in space, looking along one of its extended solar arrays. The structure seen in the bottom left-hand corner is one of the BepiColombo Mercury Transfer Module’s (MTM) sun sensors.

A black and white image of a BepiColombo solar array against the black of space.

The first image sent back by BepiColombo as it begins its journey to Mercury. Image: ESA/BepiColombo/MTM (CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

Why Mercury?

The cameras aboard the MTM will be used on a number of occasions during the mission, notably when it conducts flybys of Earth, Venus and, finally, Mercury. A total of 16 instruments can be found on board the two orbiters.

The mission will aim to answer a number of mysteries yet to be answered about the solar system’s smallest planet, including why the planet has such a high density and whether its core is molten, as we believe. This includes detailed observations of its geology, composition and craters; examination of its atmosphere; and also the performing of a test of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

By finding these answers, we could help shed a light on similar distant exoplanets, which we are now finding on an increasingly regular basis.

The mission was named in honour of Prof Giuseppe ‘Bepi’ Colombo, an Italian mathematician and engineer who was the first to see that an unsuspected resonance is responsible for Mercury’s habit of rotating on its axis three times for every two revolutions it makes around the sun.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic