BepiColombo Passes Earth

The BepiColombo spacecraft flew by the Earth last night, the first of nine gravity-assist maneuvers it will make to slow it down so that it can go into orbit around the planet Mercury on 5 December 2025. This was the only Earth gravity assist. There will be a Venus flyby later this year and next year, and six Mercury flybys from 2021-2025.

BepiColombo passed 7,877 miles over the South Atlantic Ocean at 0425 UT on 10 April 2020 at its closest approach to Earth, and I was able to image it from my backyard observatory in Dodgeville, Wisconsin at 0600 UT at a distance (range) of 21,760 miles.

BepiColombo passing through the constellation Crater 10 Apr 2020 0600 UT as seen from Dodgeville, WI

North is up and East to the left in the video frame, so BepiColombo is moving in a northwesterly direction. The two stars in the field are 3UC 145-134561 (12.2m, north) and 3UC 144-138354 (12.7m, south). The predicted equatorial coordinates (epoch of date) at 0600 UT from JPL Horizons were α = 11h 38m 03.90s, δ = -18° 08′ 25.4″. Please note when using JPL Horizons to generate ephemerides for spacecraft and minor planets passing close to the Earth that you should use the ICRF coordinates (astrometric) and not the apparent coordinates. They can be significantly different!

The integration time in the video above is 7.5 frames per second, or 0.13 second per frame. The field size is 17 x 11 arcminutes.

Here’s the video light curve of BepiColombo as it passed through the field. It was fairly constant in brightness with no obvious variability amidst the noisy measurements.

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