Despite being an icon in pop culture, our Sun’s closest neighboring planet, Mercury, has had a fairly boring life when it comes to space exploration. Only two NASA missions explored Mercury so far. Now, the ESA and JAXA’s BepiColombo is giving us new glimpses of the first planet in our solar system. The little planet is shown in stunning detail by three new images taken this week.
All three of the images are captured in black and white and are relatively small, especially compared to the large images we usually see from spacecraft like the James Webb space telescope. The entire point behind JAXA and the ESA’s collaboration on BepiColombo has been based on studying the planet and trying to figure out why Mercury keeps shrinking.
Although there are many reasonable explanations, including that the core is cooling and drawing in the crust, this probe hopes to also provide advanced maps of Mercury’s surface. These maps will hopefully help scientists learn how quickly Mercury is shrinking, as well as insight into how that is actually working as well.
This latest flyby and capture of Mercury images come just before the spacecraft enters the next part of its journey. This next sequence I especially challenging, the ESA says, as it will rely heavily on increasing the use of solar electric propulsion through thrust arcs to brake against the gravitational pull of the Sun. It’s Mercury’s proximity to the Sun that has made Mercury so difficult to study, as the glare and heat from our star is a big contender that probes in this area have to deal with.
While we have seen success with the BepiColombo, and the Parker Solar Probe continues to break records as it touches the Sun, surviving that extreme radiation and glare isn’t easy. According to the ESA, the duration and frequency of the arc thrusts are expected to increase as the probe moves forward. The goal is to release the ESA’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter and the JAXA Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter modules into orbit around the first planet in our solar system.
That main mission isn’t expected to begin until early 2026. We’ll be content with the beautiful, moody Mercury photos captured by the probe as it completed its third flyby of six.
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