The Mercury mission, a European-Japanese space probe, flew by the closest planet to the sun for the first time.

Iran PressSci & Tech: Smile, Mercury!

The smallest planet in our solar system was getting photographed Friday by a European-Japanese space probe making its closest trip past the sphere on its seven-year mission.

The BepiColombo mission made its first flyby of Mercury around 7:34 pm ET on Friday, passing within 124 miles (200 kilometers) of the planet's surface.
"BepiColombo is now as close to Mercury as it will get in this first of six Mercury flybys," the European Space Agency (ESA) said on Twitter.

During the flyby, BepiColombo is collecting science data and images and sending them back to Earth, CNN reported.

The mission, jointly managed by the ESA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, launched in October 2018. It will ultimately make six total flybys of Mercury before entering orbit around the planet in December 2025.

The mission will actually place two probes in orbit around Mercury: the ESA-led Mercury Planetary Orbiter and the JAXA-led Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter, Mio. The orbiters will remain stacked in their current configuration with the Mercury Transfer Module until deployment in 2025.

Once the Bepicolombo spacecraft approaches Mercury to begin orbit, the Mercury Transfer Module part of the spacecraft will separate and the two orbiters will begin circling the planet.

Both probes will spend a year collecting data to help scientists better understand the small, mysterious planet, such as determining more about the processes that unfold on its surface and its magnetic field. This information could reveal the origin and evolution of the closest planet to the sun.

During Friday's flyby, the spacecraft's main camera was being shielded and unable to capture high-resolution images. But two of the spacecraft's three monitoring cameras will take photos of the planet's northern and southern hemispheres just after the close approach from about 621 miles (1,000 kilometers).

BepiColombo will fly by the planet's night side, so images during the closest approach wouldn't be able to show much detail.

The mission team anticipates the images will show large impact craters that are scattered across Mercury's surface, much like our moon. The researchers can use the images to map Mercury's surface and learn more about the planet's composition.

Some of the instruments on both orbiters will be turned on during the flyby so they can get a first whiff of Mercury's magnetic field, plasma and particles.

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