This Friday, in the super early morning hours, an interplanetary spacecraft would travel around the Moon. The spacecraft, a joint European and Japanese project, will use the gravity of our planet to slow down its speed and change its path through the Solar System, putting itself on track to reach Mercury in the next five years.
Our planet’s whipping probe is named BepiColombo, which is actually two spacecraft bundled in one box. One spacecraft, developed and operated by the European Space Agency, is fitted with 11 instruments to research Mercury from the orbit of the earth.
The second comes from the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and is planned to research Mercury while rotating in orbit. When they reach Mercury, the two spacecraft must split up and travel around the planet on their own, exploring the outer world and its inner core.
BepiColombo has to make it to Mercury before all that will happen. Launched in October 2018, the BepiColombo path to the world is expected to last a total of seven years, and much of that time is spent slowing down. Since Mercury is so close to the Earth, spacecraft heading to the planet are continuously being powered by the light of our Solar System, causing them to speed up.
BepiColombo has to press the brakes constantly to make sure it doesn’t go down into the Sun.
The probe is fitted with ion thrusters for maneuvering, but they’re not going to be enough to slow BepiColombo down to the speeds it needs to achieve to get into Mercury’s orbit.
“It’s really prohibitive to do that with the fuel you [load] on the spacecraft,” Elsa Montagnon, Spacecraft Operations Manager for ESA’s BepiColombo Mission, told The Verge, adding that you will need a lot of fuel to slow down the spacecraft.
Montagnon, who is responsible for the flyby, and the mission engineers have turned to help the planets. “We’ve built a technique for making planetary flybys, and we’re going to use the energy of the planets to slow down the spacecraft,” she says.
BepiColombo is expected to swing by Earth and then by Venus twice before six Mercury flybys. It all should be enough to get the duel probes into orbit around the tiny planet.
Here are the first selfies of #BepiColombo approaching Earth, taken earlier today, less than 200,000 km away, ahead of the flyby tomorrow. At closest approach, scheduled on 10 April 05:25 BST/06:25 CEST, the spacecraft will be only 12,700 km away #StayTuned #BepiColomboEarthFlyby https://t.co/EG0Grsh2jA— BepiColombo (@BepiColombo) April 9, 2020
When BepiColombo passes across Earth — about 12:25 AM ET on April 10—he must use the planet’s gravity to change the direction of the spacecraft and alter its course to the inner solar system. The spacecraft will arrive about 7,900 miles (12,700 kilometers) from Earth.
At this time, the data will be gathered by several of the instruments on the probes. Many onboard cameras take photos, with engineers aiming to get a complete series of images as BepiColombo approaches and then leaves Earth.
Enthusiasts on the ground would even be able to see a slingshot spaceship. As BepiColombo gets closer to Earth, it will brighten up and become visible to those with telescopes or even binoculars and cameras. ESA has information about how to detect vehicles overhead.
Everyone who manages to take a photo of BepiColombo can upload it online as part of a contest. “It is going to be very cool for us, and it’s going to be really fun for us to get pictures of the astronauts as they say farewell to Earth for the last time,” says Montagnon.
The flyby is arriving at a odd time for ESA, JAXA, and the rest of the planet, as most people are sheltering in place to avoid the spread of COVID-19.
The pandemic has also influenced space operations in Europe, with ESA deciding to briefly shut down instruments on some of its deep space probes to prevent people from reaching the Agency’s mission control center in Germany.
ESA has also delayed the launch of its Mars rover in part due to travel restrictions to counter the pandemic.
The COVID-19 crisis will also have an effect on the BepiColombo trip, although a small one, as much of the work required to plan for the slingshot has already been completed.
On February 26, the task team maneuvered BepiColombo slightly to get him on the flyby line, and since then, according to Montagnon, his route has been pretty stable. “Basically, all the commands the spacecraft needs for tomorrow’s flyby are up there,” she says. “So, in theory, if everything went well, you wouldn’t need us now.”
Of course, engineers know they’re not complacent, particularly when it comes to interplanetary travel, so people should be in charge of mission control to track the case. “We can’t do this from home, because we need to watch this and be able to respond very quickly,” says Montagnon.
“It includes direct hands-on access to our operating systems.” A team of eight colleagues will work on shifts at ESA’s European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany. They’re all going to practice mutual distancing while on site.
Ironically, Montagnon insists that there probably wouldn’t be a lot of people on the spot anyway, even if there wasn’t a pandemic, as Friday is a bank holiday in Germany.
Nonetheless, more people would probably have shown if they could because the event is a major one for the BepiColombo project.
“Since it’s an important moment for the project, we’d have colleagues who don’t have to be here, but would want to be with us for such a crucial moment.
And we possibly would have had between 10 and 20 other colleagues, “says Montagnon.
Once this flyby is over, BepiColombo will move up to the inner solar system. The next flyby, about Venus, is scheduled for the 16th of October this year.
The team will be able to go back to normal operating procedures by then. But if not, the mission team has learned how to plan remotely for these flybys. “In moments of fear, we were compelled to adapt,” says Montagnon. “I don’t think it’s always been easy, but in the end, we’ve finished and now it’s all in order.”