The ESA/JAXA BepiColombo mission made its third of six gravity-assisted flybys of Mercury, capturing images of a newly named impact crater as well as tectonic and volcanic curiosities as it adjusted its course to enter Mercury’s orbit in 2025.
The closest approach occurred at 19:34 UTC (21:34 CET) on June 19, 2023, approximately 236 km above the planet’s surface, on the planet’s night side.
“Everything went very smoothly with the flyby, and the images from the surveillance cameras taken during the approach phase of the flyby were transmitted to Earth,” says Ignacio Clerigo, BepiColombo spacecraft operations manager at ESA.
“While the next flyby of Mercury won’t be until September 2024, there are still challenges to be met in between: The next long solar electric propulsion ‘arc thrust’ is scheduled for early August through mid-September. In conjunction with the flybys, it is considered Thrust arcs are essential in helping BepiColombo brake against the Sun’s massive gravitational pull before we can enter orbit around Mercury.”
During last night’s close encounter, Monitoring Camera 3 took dozens of pictures of the rocky planet. The images, which provide black and white snapshots at a resolution of 1024 x 1024 pixels, were downloaded overnight to early this morning. Three “early release” images are shown here.
Approaching the night side of the planet, some features began to emerge from the shadows about 12 minutes after closest approach, when BepiColombo was already about 1,800 kilometers from the surface. The planet’s surface became optimally illuminated for imaging from about 20 minutes after close approach onwards, corresponding to a distance of about 3,500 km onwards. In these closer images, plenty of geological features can be seen, including the newly named crater.
Crater is named after artist Edna Manley
A large impact crater on the 218 km wide peak ring is visible below and to the right of the antenna in the two closest images shown here just taken. Manly name set By the International Astronomical Union Working Group to Naming a Planetary System After Jamaican artist Edna Manley (1900-1987).
“While we were planning the flyby images, we knew this large crater would be visible, but it wasn’t named yet,” explains David Rothery, Professor of Planetary Geosciences at the UK’s Open University and member of the BepiColombo MCAM imaging team. a team. “It will obviously be of interest to BepiColombo scientists in the future because it has excavated dark ‘low-reflection material’ that may be the carbon-rich remnants of Mercury’s early crust. In addition, smooth lava flooded the floor of the basin within, indicative of Mercury’s extended history of volcanic activity.” “.
Although not shown in these flyby images, the nature of dark matter associated with Manley Crater and elsewhere will be further explored by BepiColombo from orbit. It will seek to measure how much carbon it contains and what minerals are associated with it, in order to learn more about the geological history of Mercury.
In the two closest images, one of the planet’s most spectacular geological propulsion systems can be seen near the planet terminator, just below and right of the spacecraft antenna. The cliff, called Beagle Rupes, is an example of one of Mercury’s many lobed slopes, tectonic features likely formed as a result of the planet’s cooling and contraction, causing its surface to wrinkle like a dry apple.
Beagle Rubus was first seen by NASA’s Messenger mission during its initial flyby of the planet in January 2008. It has a total length of about 600 kilometers, and cuts through a distinctive elongated crater called Sveinsdóttir.
Beagle Rubis is bounded by a slab of Mercury’s crust that has been pushed west by at least 2 km over the adjacent terrain. The mantle is bent at each end more strongly than in most other examples on Mercury.
Additionally, many nearby impact basins have been flooded by lava, making it a great area to follow BepiColombo studies.
The intricacy of the terrain is well displayed, with shadows highlighted near the boundaries of day and night, providing a sense of the heights and depths of the various features.
Members of the BepiColombo imaging team are already having a lively discussion about the relative influences of the volcanoes and tectonics that make up this region.
“This is a fascinating area for studying the tectonic history of Mercury,” says Valentina Galluzzi of the Italian National Institute of Astrophysics (INAF). “The complex interaction between these cliffs shows us that as the planet cooled and shrank, it caused the surface crust to slide and slide, creating a variety of strange features that we will pursue in more detail once we enter orbit.”
As BepiColombo moves away from the planet, it appears to be sandwiched between the spacecraft antenna and the object from the perspective seen in these images. A series of “Farewell Mercury” images were also taken from afar as BepiColombo receded from the planet; It will be downloaded tonight.
In addition to the images, several science instruments were up and running during the flyby, sensing the magnetic, plasma and particle environment around the spacecraft, from locations not normally accessible during an orbital mission.
“Mercury’s intensely cratered surface records a 4.6 billion-year history of bombardment by asteroids and comets, which, together with its unique tectonic and volcanic curiosity, will help scientists unravel the secrets of the planet’s place in the evolution of the solar system,” says ESA Research Fellow and Planetary Scientist Jack Wright. . He is also a member of the BepiColombo MCAM photography team.
“The footage seen during this flyby, MCAM’s best to date, set the stage for the exciting mission awaiting BepiColombo. With the full complement of scientific instruments, we will explore all aspects of mysterious Mercury from its core to surface processes, magnetic field and exosphere, to understand the origin and evolution of a planet close to star better.”
BepiColombo’s next Mercury flyby will take place on September 5, 2024, but there’s a lot of work to keep teams busy in the meantime.
The mission will soon enter a very difficult part of its journey, where it will gradually increase the use of solar electric propulsion through additional thrust periods called ‘thrust arcs’ in order to constantly brake against the Sun’s massive gravity. These thrust arcs can last from a few days to a couple of months, with longer arcs interrupted periodically to improve mobility and maneuverability.
The next arc sequence will begin in early August and run for approximately six weeks.
“We are already working intensively on preparing for this long thrust arc, increasing communications and control opportunities between spacecraft and ground stations, to ensure a quick turnaround between thrust interruptions during each sequence,” says Santa Martínez-Sanmartín, BepiColombo mission manager at ESA.
“This will become even more important as we enter the final phase of the cruise because the frequency and duration of thrust arcs will increase exponentially – they will be almost continuous through 2025 – and it is essential to keep the course as accurately as possible.”
The Mercury Transport Module at BepiColombo will complete more than 15,000 hours of solar electric propulsion over its lifetime, which will guide the spacecraft toward Mercury’s orbit with nine planetary flybys in total – one on Earth, two on Venus, and six on Mercury. The Mercury Planetary Orbiter, led by ESA, and the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter modules, led by JAXA, will separate into complementary orbits around the planet, and begin their main science mission in early 2026.
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All MCAM images will be publicly available in a file Planetary Science Archives From Thursday (June 22nd) am onwards, subject to availability.
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