Artist’s concept of BepiColombo as it approaches Mercury ESA Even in the midst of a global pandemic, gravity and velocity wait for no man. Spacecraft en route to far-flung destinations within our solar system demand course corrections. That’s why the European Space Agency (ESA) is temporarily disregarding COVID-19 protocol to provide the European-Japanese BepiColombo spacecraft with one…
Even in the midst of a global pandemic, gravity and velocity wait for no man. Spacecraft en route to far-flung destinations within our solar system demand course corrections. That’s why the European Space Agency (ESA) is temporarily disregarding COVID-19 protocol to provide the European-Japanese BepiColombo spacecraft with one of the nudges it needs to reach Mercury orbit by late 2025.
Engineers will have to control the spacecraft maneuver at the agency’s European Space Operations Center (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany while complying with social distancing.
Meanwhile, the BepiColombo spacecraft, launched in October 2018, will be doing some incredible social distancing of its own.
Although BepiColombo is currently orbiting the Sun at a similar distance as Earth, on April 10th at 6.25 A.M. (CEST), the spacecraft will approach Earth at the distance of only 12,700 km, says ESA. That’s less than half the altitude of Europe’s Galileo navigational satellites, says the agency. This maneuver will both slow the spacecraft down while bending and tightening its solar orbit, ESA says.
“This is the last time we will see BepiColombo from Earth,” Joe Zender, BepiColombo Deputy Project Scientist at ESA, said in a statement. “After that it will head deeper into the inner Solar System.”
Equipped with dual science orbiters, BepiColombo is due to begin science operations three months after insertion into Mercury orbit. One aim of this flyby is not only to perform a course correction, but to actually use the Moon and the solar wind’s interaction with Earth’s magnetic field to switch on and calibrate some of BepiColombo’s 11 instruments.
BepiColombo also carries three GoPro-style ‘selfie’ cameras that will be taking photographs as the spacecraft approaches Earth, says ESA.
As for the team’s safety during the operation?
“As long as all team members are healthy and the spacecraft continues to perform nominally, everything can proceed as planned,” Frank Budnik, ESA’s BepiColombo Flight Dynamics manager, said in a statement.
ESA says that the forthcoming Earth flyby on April 10th is only the first of nine gravity assist maneuvers BepiColombo will make during its seven year trip to Mercury. In October, the spacecraft will perform the first of two flybys at Venus. The final six orbit-tightening maneuvers will use Mercury’s own gravity to help BepiColombo reach its science orbits, says ESA.
As to what they will detect about this tiny planet in only an 88-day orbit about the Sun?
One of the most puzzling aspects of Mercury’s makeup is its anomalously large iron core which planetary scientists identify as unique in our solar system. As I noted here previously, the radius of Mercury’s core extends to an astounding 83 percent of the planet’s radius.
Enterprising amateur astronomers here on Earth should be able to catch one last glimpse of the spacecraft as it hurtles past our own planet. Observers using small telescopes in southern Europe might be able to spot the spacecraft briefly, says ESA, but notes that the best view will only be possible from the Southern hemisphere.