A joint European and Japanese spacecraft is about to sling around the planet Venus, performing a short gravitational dance that will change the course of the vehicle in space. This critical maneuver will take place shortly before midnight Eastern time, and the spacecraft must reach its routine to reach its ultimate goal – Mercury – in the next five years.
The spaceship that makes this planetary swing is BepiColombo, which is actually two spaceships wrapped in one. The vehicle consists of one spacecraft controlled by the European Space Agency and another controlled by the Japanese Space Agency. Once they reach Mercury, the spacecraft will separate and orbit the small world independently, collecting data on structure, atmosphere, magnetic field of Mercury and others.
Launched in October 2018, BepiColombo is currently in the midst of a long seven-year journey, with the spacecraft entering Mercury’s orbit in late 2025. The journey to Mercury is long due to where the planet is in our solar system. Because Mercury is so close to the Sun, any spacecraft trying to visit the planet will experience an additional large tug from the massive star – a gravitational pull that causes cars to accelerate.
When designing the BepiColombo mission, engineers decided to use the inner planets as brake pedals to slow down the spacecraft. “In fact, you need a lot of energy to launch a spacecraft into orbit around Mercury,” said Johannes Benkhoff, a scientist at ESI’s BepiColombo project. On the edge. “And there are two alternatives to getting that energy: one is to have a lot of fuel that will make your spacecraft bulky and heavy. The other alternative is to use the help of the planets. ”
During its seven-year voyage, BepiColombo is scheduled to make nine flights of planets, using the gravity of these worlds to slow down the spacecraft and slightly change the vehicle’s orbit around the Sun. BepiColombo has already flown to Earth in February and at 11:58 pm ET tonight the spacecraft will make the first of two flights on Venus. Once completed, BepiColombo will make six flights of Mercury before orbiting the planet in December 2025.
The flight from Venus is crucial to the spacecraft’s trajectory, but the maneuver also provides a great opportunity for BepiColombo to explore the planet. And there are many scientists who are very eager to study Venus right now. In September, scientists announced that they had found traces of a gas called phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere, a gas that is heavily linked to life here on Earth. The discovery is not close enough to say that life exists on Venus, but scientists are very curious to learn more about gas and where it can come from.
Benkhoff says the BepiColombo team has received many requests from the spacecraft to search for phosphine in Venusian clouds. “Of course, the discovery of phosphine attracted Venus a lot,” he said. “Many sources have asked us, ‘What can you do with phosphine?’ Will you look at it? “
He says the team is happy to look for gasoline, but does not expect to get very good data, as BepiColombo’s instruments are optimized for Mercury, where temperatures are higher. “I doubt our instrument is sensitive enough to detect it,” Benkhoff said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t look at it, but we’re very unlikely to contribute here.” And they expect to get some nice pictures with some “selfie cameras.”
While this Venus flight is exciting, Benkhoff notes that the next one will be even sweeter. Tonight, BepiColombo will come about 6,650 miles or 10,700 kilometers from the planet’s surface. But in November, the spacecraft will fly again from Venus, approaching 20 times and reaching 341 miles or 550 kilometers. In many ways, this is scientific testing for the second slingshot maneuver, Benkhoff said. “We hope that during this flight we can even achieve better results and higher resolution.”