What do the first photos that BepiColombo took of Mercury reveal?

Last week, we received new photos of Mercury, taken by the BepiColombo spacecraft. The images are the result of a joint mission carried out by the European Space Agency (ESA) and JAXA (Japan’s space agency), with the first planet in the Solar System as a destination, passing only 200 km from the surface. Thus, the first visit yielded records of Mercury that, in addition to being spectacular, tell us a little bit about what to expect from the planet’s secrets.

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    The BepiColombo probe consists of two connected spacecraft and a propulsion unit installed in a stacked configuration, together with three small cameras of monitoring created to photograph the planet during overflights. These cameras also help to monitor the position of the solar panels that feed the probe, the magnetometer and the communication antennas.

    The idea is that, throughout its mission, BepiColombo will carry out six flights over Mercury. During the first one, the monitoring cameras produced some records of the planet: camera 3, for example, captured part of our neighbor’s southern hemisphere, while the sun was rising in the region of Astrolabe Rupes, a formation whose name is inspired by a ship of exploration of Antarctica.

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    The sun rising in Astrolabe Rupes (Image: Reproduction/ESA/BepiColombo/MTM)

    This geological structure is long and curved, with 250 km in length. It tells us where contractions caused by Mercury’s cooling took place, which caused its crust to be pushed into nearby ground due to the process. The Moon has some structures similar to this one, only they are much smaller; thus Mercury is considered to be the only celestial body near us in which there are large—and known—formations of the type.

    After four minutes, the camera’s perspective changed and the lens revealed a wider area, with two interesting structures. One of them is the Haydn crater, which measures 250 km in diameter, whose interior is relatively shallow. In practice, this suggests that there have been lava floods there. The other is Pampu Facula, a bright region of the planet that was probably formed by explosive volcanic eruptions. Both correspond to the long volcanic history of Mercury, which had intense activity for more than 3 billion years.

    This image, with a field of wider view, was taken at 2.687 km altitude (Image: Playback/ESA/ BepiColombo/MTM)

    In addition to these images, two of the probe’s cameras produced records of the planet’s northern hemisphere, along with the Calvino crater region, an important region that could help astronomers find out more about what’s in the planet’s crustal layers. The photos also show some of the Lermontov crater, which seems to glow because it has volcanic deposits and places where a volatile compound is being lost to space — for now, the process behind this is unknown.

  • Image taken at 2.251 km, showing the northern hemisphere of Mercury (Image: Reproduction/ESA/BepiColombo/MTM)

    BepiColombo was launched in 987 and, although you have visited your destination up close, you still have a long journey ahead of you. It’s just that she’ll still have to fly over to reach the planet’s orbit, and she’ll have to fly over Mercury again in June 2026. Thus, the expectation is that the main scientific mission of BepiColombo will start at 2026.

    Source: The Conversation

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