BepiColombo flyby of Earth
Name: Gianluca Masi – Virtual Telescope Project
Location of image or observation: Ceccano (FR) – ITALY
Time of image or observation: between 03:34:48 and 03:40:44 UTC, 10April 2020
Time zone: GMT+2 DST
I decided to use the main telescope available at the Virtual Telescope Project’s site in Ceccano, Italy, 90 km south of Rome, where I live. The fact that the observatory is fully remote made possible for me to plan and handle this complex task from Rome, so respecting the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown.
The robotic unit I used is named “Elena” (PlaneWave 17″+Paramount ME+SBIG STL-6303E) and it has, like the other telescope part of the project, the capability to track any object of known ephemeris. I managed to prepare the latter via the JPL’s HORIZONS system and made the data available to the telescope: at this point, I could only wait and hope. The flyby time was in the morning twilight, making more complex to image something on the eastern horizon; furthermore a very bright Moon did not help. Finally, most the South-Eastern horizon of my observing site is not clear below 12 degrees of altitude, so I only had a very narrow window to try capturing this extremely demanding target.
At 03:20 UTC, when the target had to be in the clear part of my SE horizon, I did send to the remote telescope the command to slew to the BepiColombo expected position, asking it to track at the expected motion rates. Once the scope finished slewing and begun tracking, I started capturing images and… Bepicolombo was inside the field of view! It was breathtaking, to say the least. It was a sharp dot of light, perfectly tracked. Image after image, I could see this man-made interplanetary traveler “flying” in front of the stars on the background. I managed to capture a few tens of images before BepiColombo disappeared behind an obstacle I have in the SE direction. The last image I could capture was at 03:41:27 UTC, when the spacecraft was at about 22.300 km from my telescope. At that very moment, the motion rate of BepiColombo as seen from my observatory was of more than 54 deg/hour. Using 44 images taken back to back between 03:34:48 and 03:40:44 UTC, I managed to make this animation, where the spacecraft is moving 81X times faster than in reality.