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BepiColombo made a quick visit to Venus in August and is on to its next rendezvous. On October 1st it’ll perform a flyby of Mercury, the spacecraft’s eventual destination. This visit is just a little flirtation—one of six—ahead of its eventual orbital link-up with Mercury in late 2025.

The quick visit will yield some scientific results, though, and they’ll be just a taste of what’s ahead in BepiColumbo’s one-year mission to Mercury.

BepiColombo is on a bit of a tour of the inner regions of the Solar System on its way to Mercury. The complicated route full of flybys of Earth, Venus, and Mercury is the only way to get the spacecraft into orbit at Mercury. BepiColombo launched in October 2018 from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana. Then it travelled through space for a year and a half before returning to Earth for a gravity-assist manoeuvre that directed it toward Venus.

Then came two consecutive flybys of Venus to reduce its perihelion to Mercury distance. Those are both in the past now and next come six consecutive flybys of Mercury, each one helping to lower the spacecraft’s eventual relative velocity to only 1.84 km/s. After the flybys are complete, BepiColombo will perform four thrust arcs to lower its velocity some more. Only at that point will the spacecraft be in a position for Mercury’s weak gravity to play its role in all this. On December 5, 2025, the spacecraft will enter orbit around Mercury without a traditional orbital insertion. Quite a feat.

This complicated route is necessary because Mercury’s puny gravity is dwarfed by that of the Sun.

But before all that can happen it’s going to give us its first taste of Mercury science by swooping past the planet at about 200 km (124 mi) altitude. What’ll it find during that brief visit?

“We’re really looking forward to seeing the first results from the measurements taken so close to Mercury’s surface…It’s a fantastic feeling!”

Johannes Benkhoff, ESA’s BepiColombo project scientist.

BepiColombo won’t be in full-blown science mode during the flyby. That’s because of the spacecraft design. The mission is a joint effort between the ESA and JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. So the spacecraft is actually two orbiters in one: the ESA’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) and JAXA’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (Mio) wedded to the Mercury Transfer Module (MTM.) The two orbiters will be separated once in orbit at Mercury, but during these flybys, they’re together. Because of that, there’s a limit to the data and images they can gather.

There’ll be no high-resolution images because the main science camera is shielded by the MTM during cruise operations. But the three monitoring cameras (MCAM) will be operating. They’re the cameras that have provided mission images of the flybys of Earth and Venus so far.

When BepiColombo flew past Earth its monitoring cameras were active. Image Credit: ESA/BepiColombo/MTM, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO
When BepiColombo flew past Earth its monitoring cameras were active. Image Credit: ESA/BepiColombo/MTM, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Unfortunately, BepiColombo will be arriving on the planet’s nightside during the flyby, so it’s not an ideal situation for capturing images. The three MCAMs will be operating from five minutes after the closest approach until four hours later. That means the closest image will be captured from about 1,000 km (620 mi.)

Some important moments in BepiColombo's first flyby of Mercury. Image Credit: ESADid you miss our previous article…
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Neutron Star is Spraying Jets Like a Garden Sprinkler

Cowie1 s shape jet

X-ray binaries are some of the oddest ducks in the cosmic zoo and they attract attention across thousands of light-years. Now, astronomers have captured new high-resolution radio images of the first one ever discovered. It’s called Circinus X-1. Their views show a weird kind of jet emanating from the neutron star member of the binary. The jet rotates like an off-axis sprinkler as it spews material out through surrounding space, sending shockwaves through the interstellar medium.

The MeerKAT radio telescope in South African spotted the S-shaped jets emanating from the neutron star. Its images are the first-ever high-resolution views of such jets, according to lead researcher Fraser Cowie. “This image is the first time we have seen strong evidence for a precessing jet from a confirmed neutron star,” he said, referring to the neutron star’s off-axis spin. “This evidence comes from both the symmetric S shape of the radio-emitting plasma in the jets and from the fast, wide shockwave, which can only be produced by a jet changing direction.”

Such an awkward spin gives the jets their peculiar S-like configuration. Since scientists aren’t completely sure what phenomena caused them to launch in the first place, studying the odd behavior gives insight into the extreme physics behind its existence.

Examining the Neutron Star Jets in Detail

The MeerKAT measurements showed not only the jet but revealed termination shocks moving away from the neutron star. These occur in regions where the jets slam into material in surrounding space. This is the first time astronomers found such shocks around an X-ray binary like Circinus X-1. Those waves are moving fast—at about 10 percent the speed of light and their structure points back to the jet as their source. “The fact that these shockwaves span a wide angle agrees with our model,” Cowie said. “So we have two strong pieces of evidence telling us the neutron star jet is processing.”

A MeerKAT radio image of the S-shape jet precessing in the Circinus X-1 X-ray binary pair system. The jet emanates as a result of the accretion of material around the neutron star. Courtesy: Fraser Cowie, Attribution CC BY 4.0.
A MeerKAT radio image of the S-shape jet precessing in the Circinus X-1 X-ray binary pair system. The jet emanates as a result of the accretion of material around the neutron star. Courtesy: Fraser Cowie, Attribution CC BY 4.0.

The speed of those shockwaves turns them into particle accelerators producing high-energy cosmic rays. The fact that those rays exist tells astronomers the action around the X-ray binary is extremely energetic. That high-energy activity has grabbed astronomers’ attention for half a century. Still, it remains a mysterious system, so as Cowie points out, it’s important to observe the jets and see how their behavior changes over time. “Several aspects of its behavior are not well explained so it’s very rewarding to help shed new light on this system, building on 50 years of work from others,” he said. “The next steps will be to continue to monitor the jets and see if they change over time in the way we expect. This will allow us to more precisely measure their properties and continue to learn more about this puzzling object.”

bout Circinus X-1

The Circinus X-1 system contains a neutron star and a companion. The pair lies some 30,000 light-years away in the direction of the southern hemisphere constellation Circinus. It was first spotted in June 1969 by an Aerobee suborbital rocket carrying X-ray-sensitive instruments and has been studied for years by astronomers using optical, X-ray, and radio telescopes.

Composite image of Circinus X-1, which is about 24,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Circinus. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison/S. Heinz et al; Optical: DSS; Radio: Did you miss our previous article…
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Experimental Radar Technique Reveals the Composition of Titan’s Seas

Cassini Titan bistatic schematic 1024x523 1

The Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn generated so much data that giving it a definitive value is impossible. It’s sufficient to say that the amount is vast and that multiple scientific instruments generated it. One of those instruments was a radar designed to see through Titan’s thick atmosphere and catch a scientific glimpse of the moon’s extraordinary surface.

Scientists are still making new discoveries with all this data.

Though Saturn has almost 150 known moons, Titan attracts almost all of the scientific attention. It’s Saturn’s largest moon and the Solar System’s second largest. But Titan’s surface is what makes it stand out. It’s the only object in the Solar System besides Earth with surface liquids.

Cassini’s radar instrument had two basic modes: active and passive. In active mode, it bounced radio waves off surfaces and measured what was reflected back. In passive mode, it measured waves emitted by Saturn and its moons. Both of these modes are called static modes.

But Cassini had a third mode called bistatic mode that saw more limited use. It was experimental and used its Radio Science Subsystem (RSS) to bounce signals off of Titan’s surface. Instead of travelling back to sensors on the spacecraft, the signals were reflected back to Earth, where they were received at one of NASA’s Deep Space Network (DNS) stations. Critically, after bouncing off of Titan’s surface, the signal was split into two, hence the name bistatic.

A team of researchers has used Cassini’s bistatic data to learn more about Titan’s hydrocarbon seas. Their work, “Surface properties of the seas of Titan as revealed by Cassini mission bistatic radar experiments,” has been published in Nature Communications. Valerio Poggiali, a research associate at the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science, is the lead author.

This schematic shows how Cassini's bistatic radar experiment worked. The orbiter used its Radio Science Subsystem to send signals to Titan's surface. The signals then reflected off of Titan to Earth, where they were received by either the DNS receiver at Canberra, Goldstone, or Madrid. The signals are either Right Circularly Polarized (RCP) or Left Circularly Polarized (LCP.) Image Credit: Poggiali et al. 2024.
This schematic shows how Cassini’s bistatic radar experiment worked. The orbiter used its Radio Science Subsystem to send signals to Titan’s surface. The signals then reflected off Titan to Earth, where they were received by one of the DNS receivers at Canberra, Goldstone, or Madrid. The signals are either Right Circularly Polarized (RCP) or Left Circularly Polarized (LCP). Image Credit: Poggiali et al. 2024.

The signals that reach the DNS are polarized, which reveals more information about the hydrocarbon seas on Titan. While Cassini’s radar instrument revealed how deep the seas are, the bistatic radar data tells researchers about both their compositions and surface textures.

This image of the hydrocarbon seas on Titan is well-known and was radar-imaged by Cassini. That radar data told us how deep the seas are. New bistatic radar data can reveal more about the composition and surface texture of the seas. Image Credit: [JPL-CALTECH/NASA, ASI, USGS]
This image of the hydrocarbon seas on Titan is well-known and was radar-imaged by Cassini. That radar data told us how deep the seas are. New bistatic radar data can reveal more about the composition and surface texture of the seas. Image Credit: [JPL-CALTECH/NASA, ASI, USGS]

“The main difference,” Poggiali said, “is that the bistatic information is
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Webb Measures the Weather on a Tidally Locked Exoplanet

Webb Atmosphere Graphic 1024x663 1

Exploring exoplanet atmospheres in more detail was one task that planetary scientists anticipated during the long wait while the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was in development. Now, their patience is finally paying off. News about discoveries of exoplanet atmosphere using data from JWST seems to be coming from one research group or another almost every week, and this week is no exception. A paper published in Nature by authors from a few dozen institutions describes the atmospheric differences between the “morning” and “evening” sides of a tidally locked planet for the first time.

First, let’s clarify what the “morning” and “evening” sides mean. Tidally locked planets don’t spin, so one hemisphere constantly faces the planet’s star. As such, there is always a part of the planet where it appears to be “morning,” with the star barely peaking over the horizon. Alternatively, there’s a part of the planet where it seems to be “evening,” where the star is again just barely peaking over the horizon, but it would appear to be setting. 

Typically, on Earth, we would think of the morning side as the star peaking over the eastern side, whereas the evening side would see the star setting into the western sky. However, exoplanets sometimes rotate in the opposite direction from planets in our solar system, so that mental model doesn’t always work for them.

Webb Atmosphere Graphic 1024x663 2
The JWST light curve for WASP-34b, clearly showing the dip in the star’s brightness as the planet passes in front of it.
Credit – NASA / ESA / CSA / R. Crawford (STScI)

It’s also important not to confuse the “morning” and “evening” sides with the “day” and “night” sides of the planet. On the day side, the full force of the star affects the planet, but on the night side, the star is never seen at all. The temperature differences on such a planet are massive, and cause much more extreme weather than anything we have experience with in our solar system.

That is the case for WASP-39b, one of the most studied exoplanets. It is a “hot Jupiter” and is roughly 1.3 times the size of the largest planet in our solar system, though it only masses in at about the same size as Saturn. It’s 700 light years away and is tidally locked to its star.

Exoplanet hunters have intently studied this exoplanet since its discovery in 2011. It was the target of JWST’s first exoplanet research when it began science operations. Since then, they’ve made several interesting discoveries, and the Nature paper describes a new one—that the “morning” side of WASP-39b is a few hundred degrees cooler than its “evening” side.

Fraser talks exoplanet atmosphere with expert Dr. Joanna Barstow.

This temperature discrepancy is likely due to atmospheric conditions on the planet itself. The paper’s authors believe there is an extremely strong wind on the planet that runs from day to night at thousands of miles an hour. The wind rotates from the day side through the evening side to the night side, then through the morning side back to the day side.

So, essentially, the morning side receives “air” that has been cooled while traveling through the planet’s night side. However, that air is still a blistering 600 C (1,150 F). The temperature on the evening side, though, is hotter at 800 C (1,450 F), much hotter than any conditions found on any planet in our solar system.

Detecting such a temperature difference on an exoplanet hundred of light years away is an impressive technical feat, and the study’s lead author, Néstor Espinoza, credits JWST’s capabilities for enabling it. The telescope watched the planet both while it was traversing in front of its star, but also while it was next to it and emitting its own, admittedly much fainter, light. 

JWST found methane in a different exoplanet atmosphere, as Fraser describes in this video.

They were differentiating between the starlight filtered through the atmosphere of the planet and when there was no filtered starlight coming through allowed the researchers to make temperature estimates. JWST is so sensitive they were also able to split the data into semi-circles to differentiate the”
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