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Venus stars in beguiling new images from BepiColombo spacecraft flyby

Scientists are eyeing Venus as a possible hot spot for alien life, and we have some fresh views to enjoy while they investigate.

The BepiColombo spacecraft snapped this view of Venus with one of its "selfie" cameras during a successful flyby of the planet.

Put another fantastic flyby in the history books. 

The BepiColombo spacecraft -- a joint project from the European Space Agency and Japan's space agency, JAXA -- made a close approach to Venus this week as it works toward its ultimate destination of Mercury. 

The space explorer snapped some fun images of the intriguing planet along the way.

Venus is a hot topic right now since a surprising September study revealed phosphine, a gas with a possible biological origin, has been found in the planet's clouds. BepiColombo took the opportunity of its scheduled flyby to collect some data along with the scenic views.

ESA tweeted a GIF of Venus looking like a bright circle against the dark backdrop of space. The GIF is made up of 64 images and shows how BepiColombo moved from the dayside to the nightside of the planet.

The images look pretty lo-fi because they were taken with a suite of "selfie" cameras made to monitor the spacecraft itself. BepiColombo is equipped with a fancier camera that won't come out to play until it gets to Mercury.

Some of BepiColombo's science instruments were turned on during the flyby. 

"We'll have to be patient while our Venus specialists look carefully into the data, but we hope to be able to provide some atmosphere temperature and density profiles, information about the chemical composition and cloud cover, and on the magnetic environment interaction between the sun and Venus," said BepiColombo project scientist Johannes Benkhoff in an ESA statement Thursday.

The spacecraft already conducted a flyby of Earth earlier this year and will perform one more Venus flyby in 2021 as it aims for Mercury. It'll eventually reach Mercury orbit in 2025 where it'll split apart into two separate orbiters as it investigates the planet's origins. 

While the data from the 2020 flyby could be interesting, Benkhoff anticipates more results next year when BepiColombo gets much closer to Venus for its next flyby. Don't expect instant answers about the possibility of alien life, but some more puzzle pieces might fall into place thanks to Bepi.