08 April 2011
Posted in Our Planet, Our Universe
On August 3, 2004 NASA launched the MESSENGER discovery mission, an unmanned spacecraft set to send back pictures of the entire planet of Mercury. This mission is monumental because this is the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury and the first pictures of Mercury we will have from a spacecraft since Mariner 10 in 1974. The magnetic pull of the sun coupled with the intense heat have made it very difficult to obtain any images of the sunny side of Mercury. Until now we have only had recorded images of 45 percent of the planet‘s surface. Scientists researched and found the best way around this dilemma is through the inner solar system.
When MESSENGER launched from Earth in 2004 it began an eight year path into Mercury’s orbit. First it flew by Earth once, then by Venus twice, and took a flyby of Mercury. In 2008 the MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) craft made its initial approach and took pictures of regions of Mercury that have never been seen before by the human eye. Last month on March 17, 2011 the MESSENGER craft successfully entered the orbit of Mercury. On March 29th we got the first pictures back of Mercury from orbit and they are spectacular! The MESSENGER mission will continue collecting data for another year.
Scientists hope that from this mission we will gain more insight into the mysteries of Mercury including its geologic features, its core and density, its thin atmosphere yet presence of a magnetic field, the unusual materials at the poles, and possibly clues to the evolution of the solar system itself.
Find out more about Mercury and the other planets in our solar system by visiting The Orlando Science Center and exploring our permanent exhibit on astronomy and Earth Science, Our Planet, Our Universe.
Two articles from National Geographic Website:
Keep up with The MESSENGER: