BERLIN – A spacecraft heading for Mercury passed Venus today, using Earth’s neighbor to adjust its trajectory to the smaller planet closest to the Sun.
Launched almost two years ago, the European-Japanese probe BepiColombo took a black and white photo of Venus from 17,000 kilometers away. Some of his own instruments appeared in the picture.
This step is the second of nine planetary gravity assists the probe needs on its seven-year journey to Mercury. The first, around the Earth, took place in April.
The European Space Agency has said that this 1.3 billion euro ($ 1.5 billion) mission is the most difficult of theirs yet. Mercury’s extreme temperatures, the Sun’s strong gravitational pull, and fiery solar radiation create hellish conditions.
BepiColombo will make one more step through Venus and six through Mercury itself to slow down before its arrival in 2025. There it will be divided in two: it will launch a European orbital probe nicknamed Bepi that will enter the inner orbit of Mercury, while Mio, built by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency will collect data from a greater distance.
The probes are designed to withstand temperatures from 430 degrees Celsius in the face in front of the Sun and -180 degrees Celsius in the shadow of Mercury.
Researchers hope to learn more about Mercury, which is slightly larger than Earth’s Moon and has a massive iron core.
The last spacecraft to reach Mercury was NASA’s Messenger, which ended its mission in 2015 after four years in orbit. Previously, NASA’s Mariner 10 passed the planet in the mid-1970s.