The Euro-Japanese space probe BepiColombo has crossed the planet Mercury for the first time. The spacecraft flew along the planet at a speed of 50 kilometres per second from the sun last night.
Space agency ESA brought out the first photo taken by the probe this morning:
It is planned that five more passages with Mercury will follow in the coming years, using the planets gravity to reduce speed. The probe is expected to be sufficiently inhibited by the end of 2025 to enter a stable orbit around Mercury. At the beginning of 2026, regular research work can begin. Previously, the BepiColombo scaled past Earth and Venus to slow down.
The space probe was launched in French Guiana at the end of 2018. It is one of the most important European space missions in recent years. BepiColombo needs to answer questions left after a mission of the US probe Messenger, which Mercury investigated between 2008 and 2015. That probe found deposits in craters that may have been formed by ice.
Researchers also want to learn more about the slow contraction of the planet and past volcanic activity in Mercury. The intention is for astronomers to gain a better understanding of the emergence of our solar system.
The BepiColombo consists of two separate parts, a European and Japanese part. Once the probe has finally reached Mercury, BepiColombo splits up: the European Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) enters orbit close to Mercury. The Japanese Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter is looking for a much wider orbit around the planet.