Backyard Observatory

Space Probe Snapped Gorgeous Images of Earth on Its Way to Mercury

BepiColombo, a probe headed toward Mercury, snapped beautiful images of Earth as it did a flyby of its home planet on April 10. 

The spacecraft is a joint mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). It was launched in October 2018 but has to complete a complex series of nine planetary flybys before it arrives to orbit Mercury in 2026. It has a solar propulsion system, but the flyby allowed the spacecraft to take advantage of Earth's gravity and sort of slingshot it in the right direction for the next phase of its journey.

ESA/BepiColombo/MTM, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

BepiColombo's swing past Earth was the first of those nine, coming within 7,877 miles of our planet.

Over the weekend, ESA and JAXA have shared some of the early pictures and animations that are already available.  The probe carries many scientific instruments it will use to research Mercury, but it carries three cameras. So, it said hello to us with a series of images that are both gorgeous and a little eerie.

The cameras aboard BepiColombo are angled to basically take selfies, so the images we get show bits of the spacecraft -- it's actually three units traveling together -- as well as Earth.

The probe's flybys of Mercury start in 2021, and it will begin conducting science in Mercury's orbit in 2026.

ESA/BepiColombo/MTM, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Space Exploration While Social Distancing

The calculations to land in Mercury's orbit are wildly complex, so there was no way to delay operations due to the need to time it with the position of planets in their orbit. So, ESA's mission control in Darmstadt, Germany had an additional challenge on its hands. "The [maneuver], programmed long in advance and impossible to postpone," wrote the ESA, "had to be prepared with limited on-site personnel, amid the social distancing measures adopted by the agency in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic; but the restrictions had no impact on the operation's success."

"These selfies from space are humbling, showing our planet, the common home that we share, in one of the most troubling and uncertain periods many of us have gone through," Günther Hasinger, Director of Science for the ESA, said in a statement. He followed along with the event remotely from his home in Spain.

"We are scientists who fly spacecraft to explore the Solar System and observe the universe in search of our cosmic origins, but before that we are humans, caring for one another and coping with a planetary emergency together," he said. "When I look at these images, I am reminded of the strength and resilience of humankind, of the challenges we can overcome when we team up, and I wish they bring you the same sense of hope for our future."

Ready to go stargazing?

Here are all the best stargazing events that you can get out and see this month or you could stay in a stream the northern lights from home. 

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Dustin Nelson is a Senior Staff Writer at Thrillist. Follow him @dlukenelson.