The BepiColumbo spacecraft, a joint venture from the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the European Space Agency (ESA), just performed a slingshot around Venus to help slow it down as it continues on its path towards Mercury. The maneuver took place this past Wednesday night, just before midnight Eastern Time.
The $2 billion spacecraft was originally launched in October of 2018, and actually holds two spacecraft within it—one from each agency. Once it completes its seven-year journey towards Mercury, the two spacecraft (one from each agency) will part ways and spend a year orbiting the planet so they can gather data on its atmosphere, structure, and magnetic field.
ESA BepiColumbo project scientist Johannes Benkhoff told The Verge, “You need a lot of energy, actually, to put a spacecraft into orbit around Mercury. And there are two alternatives in order to get this energy: one is to have a lot of fuel, which will make your spacecraft bulky and heavy. The other alternative is to use the help of the planets.”
So, even though the intense gravitational pull from the Sun will accelerate the spacecraft’s speed as it approaches Mercury, JAXA and ESA scientists determined that slingshotting BepiColumbo around Venus is the most efficient way to slow it down and keep it on track. It will complete six flybys around Mercury before it falls into perfect orbit with it in December of 2025.
Because the spacecraft will complete a flyby past Venus, scientists are also using the mission as an opportunity to study that planet as well. Recently, scientists discovered trace amounts of phosphine, a gas in Venus’ atmosphere and one that’s highly associated with life on Earth. As a result, scientists are curious and eager to have a chance to learn more about the gas and its origins on the planet.
via The Verge