Launched in 2018, the BepiColombo spacecraft is currently wriggling through the vast darkness of the solar system on its way to researching mercury. But it just passed Venus on its journey, and the researchers are using this flyby to gather information about our mysterious neighboring planet.
The BepiColombo mission, a joint venture between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA), is a spaceship loaded with instruments to study Mercury's magnetosphere and its effects from solar wind. The same tools can be used to learn about Venus, which has become a hotspot of research interest as recent evidence suggests that potential signs of life may be present in its clouds.
One such instrument is the MErcury Radiometer and the Thermal Infrared Spectrometer (MERTIS) with infrared sensors for studying the composition of minerals on the surface of the mercury. But it can also be used to study part of the Venusian atmosphere.
An artistic impression that visualizes the spaceship BepiColombo flying past Venus. ESA / ATG Medialab
The concept was tested earlier this year when the spaceship made a flyby of Earth, and now it will do the same for Venus. "Scientific measurements are also carried out during approach and departure and the closest to Venus," said the heads of the MERTIS instrument, Jörn Helbert from the DLR Institute for Planetary Research and Harald Hiesinger from the Institute for Planetology at the University of Münster.
"Our MERTIS imaging spectrometer, which we built together with industry and international partners, will be used again for these measurements," explained Helbert. "We are already expecting some very interesting results, with more to come in 2021 when we get much closer to Venus," added Hiesinger.
According to the researchers, the data from the Earth flyby have already shown the possibilities of this approach. “During the flyby of the earth we examined the moon and characterized MERTIS for the first time in flight under real experimental conditions. We achieved good results, ”said Gisbert Peter, MERTIS project manager at the DLR Institute for Optical Sensor Systems. “Now we are directing MERTIS onto a planet for the first time. In this way we can make comparisons with measurements that were carried out before the start of BepiColombo in order to optimize the operation and data processing and to gain experience for the design of future experiments. "
This is the first time BepiColombo has flown past Venus, but it won't be the last. The spacecraft will fly another Venus in August 2021 before reaching its destination Mercury in 2025.