Apr 11, 2020

A spacecraft is about to swing by Earth to get a gravity assist on its way to Mercury

Posted by in category: space

On Friday, an interplanetary spacecraft will slingshot around Earth in the super early morning hours. The spacecraft, a joint European and Japanese creation, will use our planet’s gravity to brake its speed and change its course through the Solar System, putting itself on track to reach Mercury in the next five years.

The probe whipping by our planet is called BepiColombo, which is actually two spacecraft wrapped into one package. One spacecraft, designed and operated by the European Space Agency, is equipped with 11 instruments to study Mercury from the planet’s orbit. The second comes from the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and it’s designed to study Mercury while spinning in orbit. Once they reach Mercury, the two spacecraft will break apart and revolve around the planet on their own, studying the world’s exterior and its inner core.

Before all that can happen, BepiColombo needs to make it to Mercury. Launched in October 2018, BepiColombo’s route to the planet is set to last a total of seven years, and a lot of that time is spent slowing down. Because Mercury is so close to the Sun, spacecraft that travel toward the planet are constantly being tugged by our Solar System’s star, causing them to speed up. BepiColombo has to repeatedly put on the brakes to make sure it doesn’t go barreling into the Sun.

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