BepiColombo’s mostly chilly trek to Mercury is going to take seven years. Friday’s launch went smoothly with the spacecraft deploying its solar wings and antennas once it reached space. Soon after, the team on the ground used a trio of monitoring cameras (also called M-CAMs) to see how BepiColombo was doing on its first miles to Mercury.
Here’s one half of the solar wing.
These cameras aren’t anything special. The camera on your phone in your pocket is much better. These three M-CAMs can only produce black and white images at a resolution of 1024×1024. But they serve the vital role of letting the mission team back on Earth keep visual tabs on BepiColombo.
The next image shows a view from each of the M-CAMs. We see the solar wing again, but we also get a glimpse of the spacecraft’s antennas.
According to the ESA, the three M-CAMs will be snap pictures at various points during BepiColombo’s cruise to Mercury, “notably during the flybys of Earth, Venus and Mercury.”
That’s right, Friday wasn’t the last BepiColombo has seen of Earth. In fact, the spacecraft is going to be relatively close to Earth’s orbit path until it gets an assist on April 2020. This gravitational nudge from Earth will be the start of the spacecraft’s trip towards Venus and ultimately Mercury.
A simple, but fantastic animation from the ESA shows the insane trajectory it takes to place BepiColombo into orbit around Mercury.
While some of the Mercury flybys are close (about 200 kilometers), we’ll have to wait until BepiColombo is in orbit to see the best pictures. The Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) is equipped with a high-res camera, but it can’t be used until the MPO separates from the main transfer module. And that won’t happen until the spacecraft enters Mercury’s orbit and science begins in March 2026.
When BepiColombo gets there, it’s going to face temperature swings ranging from -180 degrees Celsius to 450 degrees Celsius. Plus, the intense solar radiation from the Sun means the MPO’s solar array will the Sun nearly edge-on to prevent damage.
BepiColombo marks ESA’s first mission to Mercury. It’s also the first mission to Mercury featuring two spacecraft making complementary measurements of the planet at the same time. The mission will feature fresh discoveries as well as build on what NASA’s Messenger mission found during its four-year orbit back in 2011-2015.