Welcome to Space! BepiColombo Spacecraft Headed to Mercury Snap 1st Photo

BepiColombo Mission First Image
This is the first image captured in space by the European-Japanese BepiColombo mission to Mercury. It was taken by a monitoring camera on BepiColombo’s Mercury Transfer Module (MTM) on Oct. 20, 2018, the day after the mission launched on its long voyage to Mercury. The photo shows one of BepiColombo’s extended solar arrays (right) and an insulation-wrapped sun sensor on the MTM (left). (Image credit: ESA/BepiColombo/MTM – CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

A newly launched mission to Mercury has beamed home its first photo from space.

The European-Japanese BepiColombo mission captured a selfie showing an extended solar array and an insulation-wrapped sun sensor on Saturday (Oct. 20), a day after lifting off from Kourou, French Guiana.

The heart of BepiColombo is two spacecraft — the European Space Agency's Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) and the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO), which was provided by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. A third component, the Mercury Transfer Module (MTM), serves to support this duo during the long cruise to the solar system's innermost planet. [BepiColombo in Pictures: A Mercury Mission by Europe and Japan]

And this cruise will be very long indeed. BepiColombo is scheduled to slip into orbit around Mercury in December 2025, after nine different planetary flybys — one of Earth, two of Venus and six of Mercury. This complicated trajectory is a consequence of Mercury's high orbital speed and proximity to the sun; Mercury-bound spacecraft have to thread a needle to reach the planet and avoid getting sucked in by our star's powerful gravity.

Once at Mercury, the two orbiters will separate and go their own ways. The diverse data gathered by the duo will paint a comprehensive picture of the rocky planet, shedding light on its composition, structure, magnetic field, formation and evolution, among other characteristics, mission officials have said. 

This diagram shows the spacecraft that comprise the BepiColombo Mercury mission, as well as the location of the monitoring camera that took the mission’s first photo — the selfie seen at left, which was captured on Oct. 20, 2018, the day after the mission launched. (Image credit: ESA/BepiColombo/MTM – CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

The historic first photo was snapped by one of the three black-and-white monitoring cameras aboard the MTM. If all goes according to plan, the other two cameras will be activated on Sunday (Oct. 21) and take images of the MPO's deployed medium-gain and high-gain antennas, ESA officials said.

"The monitoring cameras will be used on various occasions during the cruise phase, notably during the flybys of Earth, Venus and Mercury," ESA officials wrote in a description of the newly released photo

"While the MPO is equipped with a high-resolution scientific camera, this can only be operated after separating from the MTM upon arrival at Mercury in late 2025 because, like several of the 11 instrument suites, it is located on the side of the spacecraft fixed to the MTM during cruise," they added.

Mike Wall's book about the search for alien life, "Out There," will be published on Nov. 13 by Grand Central Publishing. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us @Spacedotcom or Facebook. Originally published on Space.com.

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.