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Earth To Be Buzzed By Spacecraft On Mission To Mercury Later This Week

by : Lucy Connolly on : 06 Apr 2020 18:08
Earth To Be Buzzed By Spacecraft On Mission To Mercury Later This WeekEarth To Be Buzzed By Spacecraft On Mission To Mercury Later This WeekESA/ATG medialab

Earth will be buzzed by a spacecraft on a mission to Mercury later this week, as it completes its first and only flyby of our planet.

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Now, if you’re anything like me and are conjuring up images of a bee or a drunken spacecraft, let me clarify that in this context, buzzed means to ‘fly very close to something – i.e. another aircraft, the ground etc… – at high speed’.

The spacecraft that will be doing the buzzing is BepiColombo, a European-Japanese mission that was launched in October 2018 that will have travelled almost 1.4 billion kilometres at the time of the flyby. In other words, approximately nine times the distance between Earth and the Sun.

BepiColombo spacecraftBepiColombo spacecraftPA Images

BepiColombo is a joint mission between European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), with the spacecraft planning to make nine planetary flybys over the course of the next few years as it makes its way to Mercury – the innermost planet of the Solar System.

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At 5.24am on Friday, April 10, the spacecraft will be visible to those of us who own a decent pair of binoculars on Earth – particularly those in the southern hemisphere – as it comes within just a couple of thousand kilometres of the outermost layer of the atmosphere, at an altitude of 12,700 kilometres.

Because Mercury is so close to the Sun, the spacecraft cannot simply fly straight there. Instead, it has to use the gravity of Earth, Venus and Mercury to do so, with the next two flybys for Venus scheduled in October 2020 and August 2021.

VenusVenusNASA

Although BepiColombo won’t be visible to the naked eye, those with access to a small telescope, binoculars or even a camera might be able to catch the spacecraft as it continues its journey into space.

Johannes Benkhoff, BepiColombo Project Scientist at ESA, said in a statement:

The flyby has an emotional effect. It’s the last time that we can see the spacecraft from Earth, so we are inviting amateur and professional astronomers to observe it before it goes.

The planets Jupiter, Saturn and Mars will also be visible to the naked eye in the early hours of April 10 – although unfortunately the Moon will also be visible, making BepiColombo more difficult to observe.

Earth/Mercury Size ComparisonEarth/Mercury Size ComparisonBrian Altmeyer/Flickr
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Joe Zender, BepiColombo Deputy Project Scientist at ESA, said ‘the further south you are, the longer you should be able to see’ the spacecraft, adding: ‘If something appears as a moving star in the field of view of your telescope or camera, that will be Bepi.’

This is only the start of the spacecraft’s journey though; after buzzing Earth, it will make another eight flybys – of Venus and Mercury – before it finally settles into orbit.

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Lucy Connolly

A Broadcast Journalism Masters graduate who went on to achieve an NCTJ level 3 Diploma in Journalism, Lucy has done stints at ITV, BBC Inside Out and Key 103. While working as a journalist for UNILAD, Lucy has reported on breaking news stories while also writing features about mental health, cervical screening awareness, and Little Mix (who she is unapologetically obsessed with).

Topics: Science, Earth, European Space Agency, Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, Mercury, Spacecraft

Credits

European Space Agency
  1. European Space Agency

    Spot BepiColombo during its ‘goodbye flyby’