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BepiColombo Makes Its First Flyby of Venus

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BepiColombo, a joint endeavor between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), successfully completed its first flyby of Venus on October 15, 2020. The closest approach took place at 03:58 GMT at a distance of about 10,720 km from the planet’s surface.

An artist’s impression of the ESA/JAXA BepiColombo spacecraft in cruise configuration, with Mercury in the background. On its 7.2 year journey to the innermost planet, BepiColombo will fly by Earth once, Venus twice and Mercury six times before entering into orbit. The MTM module is shown with ion thrusters firing, and with its solar wings extended, spanning about 100 feet (30 m) from tip-to-tip. The 24.6-foot (7.5 m) long solar array of the MPO orbiter in the middle is seen extending to the top. The Mio orbiter is hidden inside the sunshield in this orientation. Image credit: ESA / ATG Medialab / NASA / JPL.

BepiColombo blasted off from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, at 01:45 GMT on October 20, 2018.

The mission is named after Professor Giuseppe (Bepi) Colombo (1920-1984) from the University of Padua, Italy, a mathematician and engineer of astonishing imagination.

Professor Colombo was the first to see that an unsuspected resonance is responsible for Mercury’s habit of rotating on its axis three times for every two revolutions it makes around the Sun. He also suggested to NASA how to use a gravity-assist swing-by of Venus to place the Mariner 10 spacecraft in a solar orbit that would allow it to fly by Mercury three times in 1974-5.

BepiColombo is the first European mission to Mercury and is the first to send two spacecraft to make complementary measurements of the planet and its dynamic environment at the same time.

It consists of two individual orbiters: ESA’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) and JAXA’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO, or ‘Mio’).

BepiColombo needs nine gravity assist flybys — one at Earth, two at Venus and six at Mercury before entering orbit around the planet in 2025.

Flybys ultilize the gravitational pull of the planets to help alter the speed and direction of the spacecraft, and together with the spacecraft’s solar electric propulsion system, help BepiColombo steer into Mercury orbit against the strong gravitational pull of the Sun.

“For the Venus flyby we conducted the large majority of our preparations over the last three months via teleworking, with only the minimum personnel required onsite during the flyby to ensure the safe operation of the spacecraft,” said BepiColombo spacecraft operations manager Elsa Montagnon, of ESA.

“The flyby itself was very successful. The only difference to normal cruise phase operations is that near to Venus we have to temporarily close the shutter of any of the star trackers that are expected to be blinded by the planet, similar to closing your eyes to avoid looking at the Sun.”

BepiColombo completed its first flyby of Venus on October 15, 2020, coming within 10,720 km of the planet for a gravity assist maneuver. Image credit: ESA / BepiColombo / MTM / CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.

BepiColombo completed its first flyby of Venus on October 15, 2020, coming within 10,720 km of the planet for a gravity assist maneuver. Image credit: ESA / BepiColombo / MTM / CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.

Two of the three monitoring cameras onboard MPO were activated during dedicated imaging slots from 20 hours before closest approach through to 15 minutes afterwards.

From afar, Venus is seen as a small disk in the camera’s field of view, close to the spacecraft body.

During the closest approach phase the planet dominates the view, ‘rising’ behind MPO’s magnetometer boom.

Seven of the eleven science instruments onboard MPO, plus its radiation monitor, and three of five onboard MMO were active during the flyby.

While the suite of sensors is designed to study the rocky, atmosphere-free environment at Mercury, the flyby offered a unique opportunity to collect valuable science data at Venus.

“Following the successful Earth flyby where our instruments worked even better than expected, we are looking forward to see what will come out of the Venus flyby,” said BepiColombo project scientist Johannes Benkhoff, also from ESA.

“We’ll have to be patient while our Venus specialists look carefully into the data, but we hope to be able to provide some atmosphere temperature and density profiles, information about the chemical composition and cloud cover, and on the magnetic environment interaction between the Sun and Venus.”

“But we rather anticipate more results next year than now, given the closer flyby distance, so watch this space.”

The 2021 flyby, planned for August 10, will see the spacecraft pass within just 550 km of the planet’s surface.

Today’s encounter also provided the chance to make simultaneous measurements with JAXA’s Akatsuki Venus Climate Orbiter and its Earth-orbiting Hisaki Spectroscopic Planet Observatory, together with ground-based observatories to study Venus from multiple viewpoints and at different scales.

“Akatsuki is currently the only spacecraft in orbit around Venus and because of its elliptical orbit it was actually 30 times further away from the planet than BepiColombo during the flyby, meaning we can compare close observations of BepiColombo with Akatsuki’s global-scale view,” said BepiColombo project scientist Go Murakami, of JAXA.


This article is based on a press-release provided by the European Space Agency.

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