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The Observatori Astronomic del Montsec, where the Joan Oró Telescope is located.

The Joan Oró telescope captures the BepiColombo flyby

Published on 28.04.2020

The Joan Oró telescope, in coordination with various telescopes around the world, tracked the BepiColombo flyby of the Earth in the only time the mission approaches our planet on its way to Mercury.

On the night of April 10, the European Space Agency's (ESA) BepiColombo probe completed its first and only approach to Earth, passing less than 12,700 km from the surface of our planet, on its way to its final destination: Mercury. The space mission made a flyby to take advantage of its gravitational impulse. This was the only time that the space mission will come close to our planet on its journey to Mercury.

Launched in 2018, BepiColombo is on its seven-year journey to the smallest and least explored planet orbiting the Sun, which contains important clues about the formation and evolution of the entire Solar System. The mission is a joint effort between ESA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), carried out under ESA's leadership. It is the first European mission to Mercury, where only two NASA probes have arrived.

This approach is the first of nine flights that, together with the solar propulsion system the probe carries on board, will help it reach its orbit around Mercury. The next two flights will take place on Venus and the other six on Mercury itself. Scientists will use the data collected during the flyby, which includes images of the Moon and measurements of the Earth's magnetic field as the spacecraft passed by at full speed, to calibrate the instruments that, starting in 2026, will investigate Mercury to solve the mystery of how it formed, make a cartographic map and study the magnetosphere. In addition, ESA's Planetary Defence Office is using this flight as proof of its ability to coordinate asteroid observations with a non-nil probability of impacting our planet.

ESA's NEO Coordination Centre (NEOCC) coordinated many telescopes from around the world to track the probe's position and brightness as it passed over the Earth. The Joan Oró Telescope (TJO) is one of the telescopes that participated in the monitoring of the BepiColombo probe as it passed very close to the Earth. The scientific coordination of the telescope is carried out by scientists from the Institut d'Estudis Espacials de Catalunya (IEEC). Toni Santana-Ros, from our institute, has led the TJO observations of the flyby. A set of 98 images, 20 seconds exposure time each, taken with the TJO on 10 April 2020 is shown in video format.

"Observing an object with an apparent movement as fast as the BepiColombo is quite a challenge for a telescope. The TJO has allowed us to track the object up to 6 days after approaching the Earth, when the object already had a magnitude of 20.5. The TJO is certainly one of the few telescopes on the peninsula capable of making this type of observation," said Toni Santana-Ros.

The OAdM, of the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia (IEEC) and whose director is the ICCUB researcher Marc Ribó, is dedicated to carrying out research programmes in space sciences and satellite operations control. The TJO and the entire OAdM in general, including the TFRM telescope, participate in international near-Earth monitoring programmes financed by the EU and ESA, among others. These programmes are dedicated to the detection and tracking of both near-solar system objects (NEOs) and artificial satellites.


You will find more information on the BepiColombo mission at the European Space Agency, and details about the Joan Oró Telescope at the Montsec Astronomical Observatory.