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Mercury flyby tonight: Europe's BepiColombo spacecraft to attempt its 1st swing past the planet – Space.com

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A spacecraft bound for the planet Mercury will take a first look at the target tonight, when it makes its first-ever flyby of the small rocky world during an incredibly close encounter tonight.

The mission, called BepiColombo, is a joint project of the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). It is only the second mission in history sent to orbit Mercury, the smallest and innermost planet of the solar system

BepiColombo’s flyby tonight (Oct. 1) will bring the spacecraft within just 124 miles (200 kilometers) of the surface of Mercury, the closest the probe will ever get to the planet during its mission. The first images from the encounter are expected to reach Earth early Saturday (Oct. 2) and will be the first close images of Mercury’s scorched surface since the end of NASA’s Messenger orbiter mission in 2015. 

Related: BepiColombo spacecraft documents 1st year in space with selfies

Artist impression of BepiColombo flying by Mercury on Oct. 1, 2021. (Image credit: ESA/ATG medialab)

BepiColombo will make its closest approach to Mercury at 7:34 p.m. EDT (2334 GMT) today (Oct.1), ESA said in a statement. The spacecraft will then continue on its winding trajectory around the sun

This close pass is one of nine gravity-assist flybys, maneuvers that use the gravity of celestial bodies to adjust a spacecraft’s trajectory, that BepiColombo needs to perform before it can enter its target orbit around the planet. This flyby, however, will take the spacecraft even closer to the scorched planet’s surface, than its ultimate scientific orbit of 300 to 930 miles (480 to 1,500 kilometers).

Unfortunately, BepiColombo won’t be able to use all of its instruments during this opportunity as it is still in its transit configuration. The spacecraft consists of two orbiters, ESA’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) and JAXA’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter, that will eventually circle the planet separately. The two orbiters are stacked on top of a transfer module, which blocks some of their instruments, including a high-resolution camera. 

Mercury selfie time!

The €650 million ($750 million) BepiColombo mission will be able to make measurements of the environment around the planet and take images with its black and white ‘selfie’ cameras, which provide a 1024 by 1024 pixel resolution (comparable to an early-2000s flip phone.)

Originally designed to monitor the unfolding of the spacecraft’s solar panels after its launch in October 2018, these selfie cameras previously obtained images of Earth and Venus during earlier BepiColombo flybys. During the Earth flyby in April 2020 and the first Venus flyby in October of that year, BepiColombo zipped by the planets at much greater distances of 7,900 miles (12,700 kilometers) and 6,650 miles (10,700 km) respectively. The second Venus flyby in August of this year took BepiColombo as close as 340 miles (550 kilometers) to the planet’s surface. However, due to Venus’ high reflectiveness, the images were overexposed and didn’t reveal any detail.

Key moments during BepiColombo’s first Mercury flyby on 1 October 2021, which will see the spacecraft pass within 200 km of the planet. (Image credit: ESA)

Will we spot Mercury’s mysterious hollows?

BepiColombo project scientists at ESA Johannes Benkhoff told Space.com in an August interview that he expected Mercury to provide a much better photo opportunity than the probe’s past flybys. The spacecraft will be incredibly close to the planet’s surface and Mercury is dark, unlike Venus, so there should not be any overexposure problems.

“We hope that even with our selfie cameras, we may identify some structures on the surface of Mercury,” Benkhoff said. 

The team would be particularly keen to spot the so-called hollows on Mercury, mysterious dents on the planet’s surface first discovered by NASA’s Messenger probe. Not seen on any other planet in the solar system, these hollows might be caused by evaporation of material from inside Mercury, scientists believe, and might be an indication that the moon-sized planet is much more active than previously thought. 

“The interesting thing is that these hollows appear to be fairly recent,” Benkhoff said in an ESA statement. “It appears that there is some volatile material coming up from the outer layer of Mercury and sublimating into the surrounding space, leaving behind these strange features.”

This high-resolution view of Mercury from NASA’s Messenger spacecraft shows hollows — the irregularly shaped, flat-floored depressions — on the southwestern peak ring of the Scarlatti basin. (Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

Still four years to go

After tonight’s close pass, it will take four more flybys of Mercury by BepiColombo before the spacecraft is in the correct position to finally enter the planet’s orbit, which is set to happen in 2025. 

Mercury’s orbit is notoriously difficult for a spacecraft to reach. Although Earth is on average ten times closer to Mercury than to Jupiter, missions aiming for orbits around those planets take about the same time. The reason for that is that a mission to Mercury needs to constantly brake against the gravitational pull of the sun. 

The spacecraft could brake using its thrusters, but the amount of fuel it would need would make such a mission technically nearly impossible. The spacecraft therefore follows a much longer route that takes advantage of the gravitational pull of celestial bodies to gradually slow down. 

A mission to Mercury has some extra technical hurdles to overcome. Orbiting at about a third of the sun-Earth distance, Mercury is extremely hot. The two BepiColombo orbiters will have to handle temperatures of nearly 932 degrees Fahrenheit (500 degrees Celsius), which would melt conventional spacecraft solar panels, ESA said in a statement.

BepiColombo’s next flyby at Mercury will take place in June 2023. Four additional flybys at the planet will follow, none as close as the one today. In December 2025, the spacecraft will be finally ready to enter Mercury’s orbit. The two orbiters will then separate and each will start its own scientific investigation. 

Full of mysteries

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It will probably be only after the BepiColombo orbiters begin their separate missions in orbit above Mercury that scientists will learn more about the nature of the planet’s surface hollows. By that time, 10 years will have passed since the demise of Messenger, and the teams hope they will be able to compare high-resolution images from both spacecraft and detect changes on the surface. 

“If we prove that these hollows are changing, that would be one of the most fantastic results we could get with BepiColombo,” Benkhoff said in the statement. “The process driving the creation of these hollows is totally unknown. It might be caused by heat or by solar particles bombarding the surface of the planet. It’s something completely new and everyone is looking forward to getting more data.”

But there are other fascinating questions about the small seemingly lifeless planet at the heart of our solar system. In spite of the scorching temperatures, Mercury seems to harbor ice in shaded craters around its poles. It also has a magnetic field, which scientists would not expect it to have due to its small size. Scientists are also puzzled by the planet’s chemical composition, which suggests it may not have formed this close to the sun but may have been thrown there by a violent cosmic collision. Many questions to answer for BepiColombo, and tonight’s flyby is set to provide only the tiniest taster of the science to come. 

Follow Tereza Pultarova on Twitter @TerezaPultarova. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook

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Space tourism company ditches Elon Musk’s SpaceX, opts for Russian Soyuz instead – National Post

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According to Space Adventures President Tom Shelley, a seat on the Russia spacecraft is in the range of $50 million to $60 million

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In February 2020, the Virginia-based space tourism company Space Adventures announced a contract with Elon Musk’s SpaceX for a joint project, mission Crew Dragon, that would send four space tourists on a mission to a ‘relatively high Earth orbit’.

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With experience in flying private individuals to the International Space Station (ISS), the company announced that its planned mission, scheduled for late 2021 to early 2022, would set a new “world altitude record for private citizen spaceflight” by flying at least twice as high as the station.

Earlier this month during a visit to Moscow, however, Space Adventures President Tom Shelley told AFP “ultimately our reservation with SpaceX expired and that’s not a mission that we are going to be executing in the immediate future.”

In an interview with Space News confirming the statement, company spokesperson Stacey Tearne said “the mission was marketed to a large number of our prospective customers, but ultimately the mix of price, timing and experience wasn’t right at that particular time.”

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  1. This handout photo taken and released on October 5, 2021 by Russian Space Agency Roscosmos shows crew member actress Yulia Peresild reacting as her spacesuits is tested prior to the launch onboard the Soyuz MS-19 spacecraft at the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome.

    Russian actor, director flying high after reaching ISS to attempt a world first: a movie in space

  2. William Shatner (CL) gets a hug from Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos on October 13, 2021, after landing in the West Texas region, 25 miles (40kms) north of Van Horn.

    ‘There is Mother Earth’: William Shatner now the world’s oldest space traveler

Meanwhile, Space Adventures was working on another project with Russian space agency Roscosmos. Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, known for buying a SpaceX Starship flight around the moon in 2023, will be the first to travel to the ISS on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, set to launch on December 8 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

According to Shelley, a seat on the Russia spacecraft is said to cost in the range of $50 million to $60 million.

The race to space is not a thing of the past. This now privatized business has created a competitive industry between multi-billion dollar companies and countries. Although Moscow and Washington’s relationship has been severed over a number of political issues, Shelley says that space was an exception.

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“Cooperation in space in particular seems to somewhat transcend the political difficulties that exist between the United States and Russia,” he said.

Conflicting sentiments are abound concerning space tourism and exploration.

Days after Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, claimed to the BBC that “great brains and minds should be trying to repair this planet, not trying to find the next place to go and live,” director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs Simonetta Di Pippo suggests differently.

While visiting Dubai’s Expo 2020, Di Pippo told The National that “space tourism has a lot of positives and can help inspire humanity to protect their planet. It’s really the attempt of bringing space closer to humanity and humanity closer to space.”

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Lambton County installing glass barriers in council chambers – Chatham This Week

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Glass barriers will be installed between the desks of Lambton County councillors in the council chambers in Wyoming ahead of January when the council is expected to begin meeting again in person.

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Glass barriers will be installed between the desks of Lambton County councillors in the council chambers in Wyoming ahead of January, when in-person meetings are expected to resume.

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The barriers are expected to cost $12,000 but will free county councillors from having to wear face masks during the meetings.

“It maybe is a little bit of overkill” but “we want to make sure all of council is comfortable and feeling secure,” said Warwick Township Mayor Jackie Rombouts, chairperson of the county council committee reviewing a staff report that recently outlined steps being taken for the resumption of in-person meetings.

The report noted the barriers are required under regulations, given the layout of the council chambers where members sit close together.

Plympton-Wyoming Mayor Lonny Napper and Warwick Township Mayor Jackie Rombouts are shown during a meeting of Lambton County council held before the start of the pandemic.
Plympton-Wyoming Mayor Lonny Napper and Warwick Township Mayor Jackie Rombouts are shown during a meeting of Lambton County council held before the start of the pandemic. Photo by Paul Morden /Paul Morden/The Observer

“If people are going to be in close proximity to each other without a mask, current regulations would require that impermeable partition,” said Stephane Thiffeault, the county’s general manager of corporate services.

County council and its committees have been meeting online since the pandemic began but decided in September to plan for a return to in-person meetings in January, subject to changes in public-health guidelines.

Lambton Shores Mayor Bill Weber noted everyone attending in-person meetings will be vaccinated.

When “you can fill a stadium with people cheering on a team, it seems silly that 17 of us need to have partitions between us,” he said.

County council voted recently to require that councillors show proof of full COVID-19 vaccination, or a recent test, to attend in-person meetings when they resume. Councillors can also continuing attending meetings “virtually.”

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County councillors will also be required to “self-screen” for COVID-19 symptoms before attending meetings and use hand sanitizer on the way into council chambers. They will be required to wear a mask and maintain social distances when not seated at their desk.

A limited number of county staff will attend the meetings while others will participate virtually, the report said.

Limited space will be available in the gallery for the public, who will be required to sign in. A total of 38 members of the public can be accommodated in the gallery, allowing for social distancing, the report said.

Members of the public will also be able to watch from a committee room overlooking the chambers, and the meetings will continue to broadcast online for the public.

pmorden@postmedia.com

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Signs of first planet found outside our galaxy – Yahoo News Canada

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The finding comes from observation of an X-ray binary – a neutron star or black hole pulling in gas from a companion star

Astronomers have found hints of what could be the first planet ever to be discovered outside our galaxy.

Nearly 5,000 “exoplanets” – worlds orbiting stars beyond our Sun – have been found so far, but all of these have been located within the Milky Way galaxy.

The possible planet signal discovered by Nasa’s Chandra X-Ray Telescope is in the Messier 51 galaxy.

This is located some 28 million light-years away from the Milky Way.

This new result is based on transits, where the passage of a planet in front of a star blocks some of the star’s light and yields a characteristic dip in brightness that can be detected by telescopes.

This general technique has already been used to find thousands of exoplanets.

Dr Rosanne Di Stefano and colleagues searched for dips in the brightness of X-rays received from a type of object known as an X-ray bright binary.

These objects typically contain a neutron star or black hole pulling in gas from a closely orbiting companion star. The material near the neutron star or black hole becomes superheated and glows at X-ray wavelengths.

Because the region producing bright X-rays is small, a planet passing in front of it could block most or all of the X-rays, making the transit easier to spot.

The team members used this technique to detect the exoplanet candidate in a binary system called M51-ULS-1.

“The method we developed and employed is the only presently implementable method to discover planetary systems in other galaxies,” Dr Di Stefano, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, US, told BBC News.

“It is a unique method, uniquely well-suited to finding planets around X-ray binaries at any distance from which we can measure a light curve.”

Future planet-hunting

This binary contains a black hole or neutron star orbiting a companion star with a mass about 20 times that of the Sun. A neutron star is the collapsed core of what had once been a massive star.

The transit lasted about three hours, during which the X-ray emission decreased to zero. Based on this and other information, the astronomers estimate that the candidate planet would be around the size of Saturn, and orbit the neutron star or black hole at about twice the distance Saturn lies from the Sun.

Dr Di Stefano said the techniques that have been so successful for finding exoplanets in the Milky Way break down when observing other galaxies. This is partly because the great distances involved reduce the amount of light which reaches the telescope and also mean that many objects are crowded into a small space (as viewed from Earth), making it difficult to resolve individual stars.

With X-rays, she said, “there may be only several dozen sources spread out over the entire galaxy, so we can resolve them. In addition, a subset of these are so bright in X-rays that we can measure their light curves.

“Finally, the huge emission of X-rays comes from a small region that can be substantially or (as in our case) totally blocked by a passing planet.”

Messier 51Messier 51

Messier 51 is also called the Whirlpool Galaxy because of its distinctive spiral shape

The researchers freely admit that more data is needed to verify their interpretation.

One challenge is that the planet candidate’s large orbit means it would not cross in front of its binary partner again for about 70 years, quashing any attempts to make a follow-up observation in the near-term.

One other possible explanation that the astronomers considered is that the dimming has been caused by a cloud of gas and dust passing in front of the X-ray source.

However, they think this is unlikely, because the characteristics of the event do not match up with the properties of a gas cloud.

“We know we are making an exciting and bold claim so we expect that other astronomers will look at it very carefully,” said co-author Julia Berndtsson of Princeton University, New Jersey.

“We think we have a strong argument, and this process is how science works.”

Dr Di Stefano said that the new generation of optical and infrared telescopes would not be able to compensate for the problems of crowding and dimness, so observations at X-ray wavelengths would likely remain the primary method for detecting planets in other galaxies.

However, she said a method known as microlensing might also hold promise for identifying extra-galactic planets.

The study has been published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Astronomy.

Follow Paul on Twitter.

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