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MESSENGER becomes first spacecraft to orbit Mercury

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March 18, 2011

Mercury in color, seen by MESSENGER in 2008 (Image: NASA)

Mercury in color, seen by MESSENGER in 2008 (Image: NASA)

Image Gallery (3 images)

NASA has reported that its MESSENGER spacecraft is now in orbit around the planet Mercury – the first ever mission to achieve this feat. More than 40 years on from the first moon landing in the age of the Mars rovers and space tourism, it's easy to overlook just what a remarkable a feat this is. These amazing facts might just jolt our sense of wonder – before reaching orbit on Thursday at approximately 9 pm EDT, MESSENGER traveled for six and a half years and covered 4.9-billion-miles in which it went through three flybys of Mercury, one of Earth and two of Venus. After firing its main thruster for 15 minutes the spacecraft slowed by 1,929 mph (leaving around 10 percent of fuel in the tank for orbit correction maneuvers) and it is now in a 12 hour elliptical orbit around the innermost planet some 96.35 million miles from Earth.

MESSENGER (short for the slightly less palatable MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, Geochemistry, and Ranging) is the first mission to return data from Mercury since Mariner 10 photographed around 45 percent of the planet's surface in 1974-75. It will stay in orbit for a year and map around 90 percent of the planet in color.

Artist's concept of MESSENGER in orbit around Mercury (Credit: NASA)

The spacecraft is carrying high-res imaging equipment and an array of spectrometers which are amazingly kept at room temperature by its heat shields despite the proximity of the Sun. On March 23 these instruments will be switched on and tested before the primary science phase – which will deliver new insights into the make-up of the little understood planet – begins on April 4. A full run down on the MESSENGER's payload can be found here.

"Despite its proximity to Earth, the planet Mercury has for decades been comparatively unexplored," said Sean Solomon, MESSENGER principal investigator of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. "For the first time in history, a scientific observatory is in orbit about our solar system's innermost planet. Mercury's secrets, and the implications they hold for the formation and evolution of Earth-like planets, are about to be revealed."

About the Author
Noel McKeegan After a misspent youth at law school, Noel began to dabble in tech research, writing and things with wheels that go fast. This bus dropped him at the door of a freshly sprouted Gizmag.com in 2002. He has been Gizmag's Editor-in-Chief since 2007.   All articles by Noel McKeegan
6 Comments

Mercury

Closest: 46 million km (.307 AU)

Furthest: 70 million km (.466 AU)

Average: 57 million km (.387 AU)

Closest to Mercury from Earth: 77.3 million km

Robert Walther
18th March, 2011 @ 09:09 am PDT

I was goin to say "That is so cool"

Then I realised it's probably quite hot.

Loving the fact the heat sheilds keep the equipment at room temp.

Chris P Taylor
18th March, 2011 @ 10:01 am PDT

Fantastic news!

This compensates somewhat for the shattering blow last year, ironically NASAs Picture of the Day where a small group gathered at Arlington Cemetary in Virginia to commemorate the anniversary on Jan 27 of the deaths of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee during the routine plugs out test fire tragedy of Apollo One in 1967, of the announcement of killing NASAs monumental and potentially historical Constellation Project due to budget cuts - the return of manned lunar exploration and the construction of a permanent lunar base - a concept dormant since 1972 from the final Apollo 17 mission.

At the time of the Apollo One fire, there was a very serious threat to stop Apollo dead in it's tracks before approaching it's goal - manned lunar landing less than a decade after JFKs Rice University speech in 1961, yet despite all odds, Neil Armstrong and 11 others walked on the moon in the next few years afterwards.

Messengers success is a triumphant beacon of hope for those deeply passionate about man kinds manifest destiny to explore beyond our planet, and hopefully a catalyst to inspire the youngest generation to share the awe and wonder of our future potential explorations and the universe of learning potential yet to be gained from those endeavors.

DigitaLight42
18th March, 2011 @ 11:41 am PDT

I hope that Messenger can locate the real inner most planet called Vulcan. It is reallt there, but difficult to see from Earth. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vulcan_(hypothetical_planet)

joe.huard
19th March, 2011 @ 12:43 pm PDT

@joe.huard

Vulcan was a small planet proposed to exist in an orbit between Mercury and the Sun. In an attempt to explain peculiarities of Mercury's orbit, in the 19th-century French mathematician Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier hypothesized that they were the result of another planet, which he named Vulcan. No such planet was ever found, and Mercury's orbit has now been explained by Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity. The name was later given to the home planet of the Star Trek character Spock when the series was created in the 1960s.

Facebook User
20th March, 2011 @ 01:58 pm PDT

@joe.huard

I think you have been watching to many sci-fi movies.

Quackula
21st March, 2011 @ 11:10 am PDT
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