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BepiColombo sets up for second Mercury bypass

BepiColombo sets up for second Mercury bypass

Press release from: European Space Agency

Posted: Thursday, June 23, 2022

ESA / JAXA The BepiColombo mission is preparing for its second close flight of Mercury on 23 June. ESA’s spacecraft team guides BepiColombo through six gravitational aids from the planet before entering orbit around 2025.

Like its first encounter last year, this week’s bypass will also bring the spacecraft to within about 200 km above the planet’s surface. The nearest approach is expected at 09:44 OUT (11:44 CEST).

The primary purpose of the bypass is to use the planet’s gravity to fine-tune BepiColombo’s orbit. After being launched into space on an Ariane 5 from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou in October 2018, BepiColombo uses nine planetary bypasses: one on Earth, two on Venus and six on Mercury, along with the spacecraft’s electric propulsion system for solar energy, to help to steer into Mercury’s orbit against the sun’s enormous gravitational force.

Although BepiColombo is in a “stacked” cruise configuration for these short-haul flights, which means that many instruments cannot yet be fully used, it can still get an incredible taste of Mercury’s science to increase our understanding and knowledge of the innermost planet of the solar system. A sequence of snapshots will be taken by BepiColombo’s three surveillance cameras showing the planet’s surface, while a number of the magnetic, plasma and particle surveillance instruments will sample the environment from both near and far from the planet during the hours around the approach.

“Even during fleeting by-passes, these ‘grips’ of science are extremely valuable,” said Johannes Benkhoff, ESA’s BepiColombo project researcher. “We get to fly our world-class scientific laboratory through different and unexplored parts of Mercury’s environment that we will not have access to once in orbit, while we get a head start on the preparations to ensure that we will move on to the main thing. the scientific mission as quickly and smoothly as possible. “

A unique aspect of the BepiColombo mission is its dual spacecraft character. The ESA-led Mercury Planetary Orbiter and the JAXA-led Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter, Mio, will be delivered to complementary orbits around the planet by a third module, ESA’s Mercury Transfer Module, in 2025. Together, they 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 close to its parent star. Dual observations are the key to understanding solar-powered magnetospheric processes, and BepiColombo will break new ground by providing unmatched observations of the planet’s magnetic field and the solar wind’s interaction with the planet in two different locations simultaneously.

On course for slingshot

Gravity bypasses require extremely precise deep navigation work, which ensures that a spacecraft passes the massive body that will change its trajectory at just the right distance, from the right angle and at the right speed. All this is calculated years in advance but must be as close to perfect as possible on the day.

Getting into orbit around Mercury is a challenging task. First, BepiColombo had to throw away the orbital energy it was “born” with when it was launched from Earth, which meant that it first flew in an orbit similar to our home planet – and shrunk its orbit down to a size more similar to Mercury. BepiColombo’s first bypasses of Earth and Venus were thus used to “dump” energy and fall closer to the center of the solar system, while the series of Mercury bypasses are used to lose more orbital energy, but now with the aim of being captured by the burned planet.

For this second of six such overflights, BepiColombo needs to pass Mercury at a distance of only 200 km from its surface, with a relative speed of 7.5 km / s. By doing so, BepiColombo’s speed in relation to the sun will be slowed down by 1.3 km / s, which brings it closer to the Mercurial orbit.

“We have three locations available to perform correction maneuvers from ESA’s ESOC Mission Control in Darmstadt, Germany, to be in exactly the right place at the right time to use Mercury’s gravity when we need it,” explains Elsa Montagnon, BepiColombo Head of Mission .

“The first hatch was used to set the desired altitude of 200 km above the planet’s surface, to ensure that the spacecraft would not be on a collision course with Mercury. Thanks to the careful work of our Flight Dynamics colleagues, this first runway correction was performed very precisely so that no further gaps were needed. “

The selfie camera is on

During the overflights, it is not possible to take high-resolution images with the main science camera because it is shielded by the transfer module while the spacecraft is in cruise configuration. However, BepiColombo’s three surveillance cameras (MCAM) will take pictures.

Since BepiColombo’s nearest approach will be on the planet’s night side, the first images where Mercury will be illuminated are expected to be about five minutes after close approach, at a distance of about 800 km.

The cameras provide black and white snapshots in 1024 x 1024 pixel resolution and are placed on the Mercury Transfer Module so that they also capture the spacecraft’s solar panels and antennas. When the spacecraft changes its orientation during the bypass, Mercury will be seen passing behind the structural elements of the spacecraft.

The first pictures will be downgraded within a couple of hours after the next approach; the first is expected to be available for public publication in the afternoon of June 23. Subsequent photos will be downgraded for the rest of the day and a second photo release, consisting of several new photos, is expected on Friday morning. All images are scheduled to be released to the public in the Planetary Science Archive on Monday, June 27th.

For the closest images, it should be possible to identify large impact craters and other prominent geological features associated with tectonic and volcanic activity such as rocks, ridges and lava plains on the planet’s surface. Mercury’s heavily cratered surface records a 4.6 billion year history of bombardment of asteroids and comets, which together with unique tectonic and volcanic curiosities will help scientists unlock the secrets behind the planet’s place in the evolution of the solar system.

Follow the bypass

Follow @Esaoperations and @bepicolombo with @ESA_Bepi, @ESA_MTM and @JAXA_MMO for updates.

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