ESA's BepiColombo spacecraft zooms past Earth on way to Mercury

A couple of years ago, the European Space Agency launched its BepiColombo spacecraft on a mission toward Mercury. Late last week, this spacecraft successfully completed its first Earth flyby, according to the ESA, which reports that BepiColombo will complete a total of nine flybys during its time in space. On April 10, the spacecraft came within 7,891 miles of our planet.

The BepiColombo spacecraft is on a seven-year mission that will take it to Mercury, a planet that may help shed light on the origins of our Solar System. According to the ESA, the mission will take the spacecraft past Venus during its next two flyby events followed by Mercury, where it will conduct a total of six flybys.

During its Earth flyby late last week, BepiColombo had to spend a bit over half an hour in the Earth's shadow. This 'eclipse phase' was the most sensitive part of the event, according to the ESA's BepiColombo Spacecraft Operations Manager Elsa Montagnon. Because the spacecraft has solar power, it was not getting access to its power source during its time in the shadow.

That eclipse phase didn't put the spacecraft in any danger, however, because the team behind the mission made sure to charge BepiColombo's batteries and to warm up its sensitive components before it passed through the dark region. The systems' components were monitored during the dark period; soon enough, the solar panels started generating more electricity, indicating the spacecraft had exited the eclipse.

There was another troubling aspect of this flyby, which was one that couldn't be anticipated when the spacecraft was launched: quarantine. The ESA says that the flyby had to be conducted with only limited staff on-site in Germany. The maneuver had been pre-programmed to happen, but the ESA notes that it was never an option to postpone the Earth flyby.