A Mercury-bound spacecraft swooped past Earth on Friday, tweaking its roundabout Route to the solar system’s smallest and innermost planet.
Launched one and a half years back, Europe and Japan’s BepiColombo spacecraft passed within 8,000 kilometers (12,700 kilometers) of Earth.
The gravity tug from Earth slowed BepiColombo and put it on a course closer to the sun.
It was the first of nine planetary gravity assists — and the only one between Earth — about the spacecraft’s seven-year trip to Mercury. The spacecraft — comprised of two scientific orbiters — must achieve Mercury in 2025, after swinging twice past Venus and six times past Mercury itself. The next flyby will be on Venus in October.
Before leaving Earth’s area, BepiColombo beamed back black-and-white images of the home planet. The spacecraft holds three GoPro-type cameras.
“All these selfies from the area are humbling, revealing our planet, the frequent home we share, in a few of the very troubling and uncertain periods a lot of people have gone through,” Gunther Hasinger, the European Space Agency’s science director, stated via Twitter.
The space agency’s control center in Germany had fewer employees than normal for Friday’s surgery due to the coronavirus pandemic. The ground controllers sat far apart because they tracked the flyby. Data from the flyby will be employed to calibrate the spacecraft’s science instruments.
Scientists expect to learn more about the origin and makeup of Mercury, once the European and Japanese orbiters independent and begin their own scattering of their scorched planet.
Mercury is the least explored of the solar system’s four rocky planets. It’s only a little bigger than our moon and circles the sun in only 88 days.
The spacecraft is named after Italian mathematician and engineer Giuseppe”Bepi” Colombo, who invented the use of planetary flybys for Mercury experiences. He died in 1984.