BepiColumbo successfully completes Earth flyby

The Earth seen from BepiColumbo

BepiColumbo, the joint European-Japanese mission to Mercury, has successfully completed its fly-by of Earth.

The image to the right is one of the images of Earth it took during the fly-by. The white streak in the upper right is part of the spacecraft.

Mission scientists switched on a number of the duo’s instruments for the Earth pass, to test and calibrate them. Unfortunately, the main camera on Europe’s MPO couldn’t operate because of its position in the stack. But small inspection cameras to the side of Bepi did manage to grab some black & white pictures of the Earth and Moon.

The quote call’s the spacecraft a “duo” because it really is two orbiters presently latched together, the European Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) and the Japanese Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO). When it gets to Mercury these will separate.

ESA resumes science operations on orbiting spacecraft

The European Space Agency (ESA) has reactivated four science spacecraft, two in Mars orbit and two headed for the Sun, after putting them in safe mode because the agency had shut down many operations due to one person becoming infected with COVID-19.

Fortunately, the initial case remained the only one as the people in quarantine did not develop any symptoms. “When we shut down science, we established very clear criteria to decide when it would restart, and as of this weekend we have begun to gradually bring the missions back into their normal state,” adds Paolo.

…Because of preventative measures taken early to limit the chance of infection spreading, the situation at ESOC is now stable. The few individuals that periodically go on site are predominantly working in isolation, and generally do not even meet each other. If they have to be in the same room, they follow very strict social distancing rules and protections.

It remains unclear whether this reactivation means there will be sufficient staffing for the fly-by of Earth by ESA’s BepiColumbo Mercury mission on April 10th. The information at the link is very encouraging, but it is also an official statement from ESA. Getting the real truth from such statements is not guaranteed.

Europe’s BepiColumbo mission to Mercury threatened by COVID-19

Because of the strict rules and work suspensions imposed due to the Wuhan virus panic, there will be a reduced workforce during the April 10, 2020 fly-by of Earth by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) BepiColumbo Mercury mission.

The press release tries to make it sound like they are heroically working through the fly-by, but the truth is revealed far down in the text:

The operation, however, will be performed with limited personnel at ESA’s European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany, where engineers will have to comply with social distancing rules presently in place all over Europe as a response to the coronavirus pandemic. “The Earth swing-by is a phase where we need daily contact with the spacecraft,” says Elsa Montagnon, BepiColombo Spacecraft Operations Manager at ESA. “This is something that we cannot postpone. The spacecraft will swing by Earth independently in any case.”

The coronavirus threat forces the team to work with minimal face to face interaction while ensuring all steps in the process are properly covered. “During the critical two weeks prior to the closest approach, we need to upload safety commands to prepare the spacecraft for unexpected problems,” says Christoph Steiger, BepiColombo Deputy Spacecraft Operations Manager. “For example, we need to prepare the transfer module for the 34 minute-long eclipse when its solar panels will not be exposed to sunlight to prevent battery discharge.”

Operations can still be conducted as planned, he adds, but will require more effort and attention than in a normal situation. [emphasis mine]

I suspect that much of the software work is now being done remotely, but there is no doubt the inability to be present in the control room will prevent any quick fix, should the spacecraft need help during the fly-by.

Ariane 5 launches BepiColumbo to Mercury

An Arianespace Ariane 5 rocket successfully launched the joint European/Japanese BepiColumbo mission to Mercury this weekend.

BepiColombo consists of two orbiters: Japan’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO) and ESA’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO), both of which will be carried together by the Mercury Transport Module (MTM).

While MPO will go into an approximately 400 x 1500 km mapping orbit around Mercury, MMO will enter a highly elliptical orbit to study the planet’s enigmatically strong magnetic field.

The leaders in the 2018 launch race:

28 China
17 SpaceX
8 Russia
8 ULA
7 Europe (Arianespace)

China still leads the U.S. in the national rankings 28 to 26.