The first mission to Mercury

Feb 01, 2011
Mercury. Photo courtesy of NASA

As the team of scientists behind NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft eagerly awaits the craft's entry into Mercury's orbit on 17 March, we could soon get answers to questions about the origin, composition, interior structure and geological history of this mysterious planet.

Louise Prockter, deputy project scientist on the mission, writes in February's about the challenges the craft has been designed to face, the early successes of the mission and her own triumphant voyage over the past decade's work.

A journey to faces once-thought insurmountable challenges – from intense solar radiation, extreme hot and cold, and the need for a seemingly prohibitive amount of fuel to make it to our Solar System's most inner planet.

With solar radiation 11 times more intense around Mercury than around Earth, and with temperatures reaching 425 C on the planet's sunlit surface and dipping as low as -185 C on its night side, the intricate instruments designed to observe Mercury have much to be protected from.

Prockter describes the design of a sunshield made of heat-resistant ceramic cloth, cleverly crafted to keep almost all the instruments at room temperature, and the highly elliptical orbit the craft will embark upon in order to avoid the solar heat that Mercury's surface radiates back into space.

Following six "gravity assists" – using the gravity of planets to help tweak a spacecraft's direction, avoiding the need to use prohibitive amounts of fuel – MESSENGER is more than six years into its journey and soon to embark upon the key part of its mission.

Over the last three years, MESSENGER has been using Mercury's own gravity to line itself up for entry into its desired orbit. During this stage of the journey, MESSENGER has already captured shots of Mercury, revealing a hemisphere that had never been imaged before.

These early successes demonstrate the craft's capability and provide early promise of far greater success.

On receipt of these early images of Mercury, Prockter writes: "How often in your life do you get to see something completely unexplored?...My first feeling was one of complete joy and disbelief – a perfect, beautiful, gibbous Mercury filled the screen, showing an incredible level of detail."

Explore further: NKorea launch pad expansion 'nearing completion'

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Messenger spacecraft on way to Mercury

Aug 03, 2005

NASA's Messenger spacecraft swung by Earth for a Tuesday gravity assist that propelled it deeper into space on its long journey toward Mercury.

MESSENGER On Its Way

Aug 04, 2004

The MESSENGER spacecraft lifted off on-time aboard a Boeing Delta II rocket from pad 17-B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., at 2:15:56.537 a.m. EDT. MESSENGER has successfully begun its mission to u ...

NASA rescheduled MESSENGER start to Mercury to August 3

Aug 02, 2004

Today's launch of the MESSENGER spacecraft has been canceled due to weather constraints. The launch team will try again tomorrow, August 3, at 2:15:56 a.m. MESSENGER is a scientific investigation of the planet ...

Recommended for you

NKorea launch pad expansion 'nearing completion'

4 hours ago

A U.S. research institute says construction to upgrade North Korea's main rocket launch pad should be completed by fall, allowing Pyongyang (pyuhng-yahng) to conduct a launch by year's end if it decides to do so.

Mars, Saturn and the claws of Scorpius

10 hours ago

Look up at the night sky this week and you'll find Mars and Saturn together in the west. Mars stands out with its reddish colouring and you might just be able to detect a faint yellow tinge to Saturn. ...

User comments : 11

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

omatumr
1 / 5 (5) Feb 01, 2011
Congratulations!

Mercury is the planet closest to the Sun and probably consists mostly of iron (Fe), like the Sun.

youtube.com/watch?v=yLjQSSHIe6k

Unfortunately the surface of Mercury has probably been reworked and contains little or no information today on the heterogeneous accretion of this planet.

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
Former NASA Principal
Investigator for Apollo
jamey
4.4 / 5 (7) Feb 01, 2011
The Sun is mostly composed of *iron*???
Nik_2213
5 / 5 (2) Feb 01, 2011
Uh, wasn't Mariner_10 (~1973) the first mission to Mercury ?? Messenger will be the first to orbit, rather than fly by...

And, OKM, what happened to the Sun's neutron star core you've been claiming ??
that_guy
4 / 5 (4) Feb 01, 2011
Uh, wasn't Mariner_10 (~1973) the first mission to Mercury ?? Messenger will be the first to orbit, rather than fly by...


The article is referring to the unexplored...mariner was only able to catch about half of mercury, not very high detail...This is the first craft to orbit mercury, as well as catch pictures of the other half of mercury, which hasn't been seen before.

This is the first mission TO mercury, not the first mission to pass by it.
omatumr
1 / 5 (4) Feb 01, 2011
The Sun is mostly composed of *iron*???


Actually the mantle around the neutron star consists mostly of the same elements seen in rocky planets and ordinary meteorites: Fe, O, Ni, Si, S, Mg and Ca:

a.) Scientific Genesis: 2. The Iron Sun
youtube.com/watch?v=yLjQSSHIe6k

b.) Scientific Genesis: 3. Neutron Repulsion
youtube.com/watch?v=sXNyLYSiPO0

With kind regards,
Oliver

neiorah
5 / 5 (1) Feb 02, 2011
Sweet !
anthonys
not rated yet Feb 02, 2011
"and the need for a seemingly prohibitive amount of fuel to make it to our Solar System's most inner planet" as Mercury is nearer to the Sun than we are, could somebody please explain the above quote? I would have thought going nearer to the sun would have used less fuel.
The Idiot
that_guy
3 / 5 (4) Feb 02, 2011
The Sun is mostly composed of *iron*???


Actually the mantle around the neutron star consists mostly of the same elements seen in rocky planets and ordinary meteorites: Fe, O, Ni, Si, S, Mg and Ca:

a.) Scientific Genesis: 2. The Iron Sun
youtube.com/watch?v=yLjQSSHIe6k

b.) Scientific Genesis: 3. Neutron Repulsion
youtube.com/watch?v=sXNyLYSiPO0

With kind regards,
Oliver


Actually, a neutron star is called a neutron star because it is composed of neutrons. I thought the name would give it away.

It is compressed by gravity to the point where the electrons and protons combine into neutrons due to excessive gravity...Therefore a neutron star has no appreciable amounts of elements except for "Neutronium"...or I prefer to think of it as the largest atomic nucleus - ever.
yyz
5 / 5 (3) Feb 02, 2011
"...could somebody please explain the above quote? I would have thought going nearer to the sun would have used less fuel."

A spacecraft traveling to an inner planet will accelerate because it is falling toward the Sun, and a spacecraft traveling to an outer planet will decelerate because it is leaving the vicinity of the Sun. Although it is true that the orbital speed of an inner planet is greater than that of the Earth, a spacecraft traveling to an inner planet, even at the minimum speed needed to reach it, is still accelerated by the Sun's gravity to a speed notably greater than the orbital speed of that destination planet.

If the spacecraft's purpose is only to fly by the inner planet, then there is typically no need to slow the spacecraft. However, if the spacecraft is to be inserted into orbit about that inner planet, then there must be some way to slow the spacecraft. This can be accomplished with rocket burns(fuel) or gravity assists(w-Earth, Venus & Mercury in this case).
that_guy
1 / 5 (1) Feb 05, 2011
"...If the spacecraft's purpose is only to fly by the inner planet, then there is typically no need to slow the spacecraft. However, if the spacecraft is to be inserted into orbit about that inner planet, then there must be some way to slow the spacecraft. This can be accomplished with rocket burns(fuel) or gravity assists(w-Earth, Venus & Mercury in this case).


Excellent explanation yyz. To add to that point, it is relative. beyond a certain point, you will have a distance where on average it takes more fuel to go to farther planets, vs a cap on how much it would take to get to inner planets. with jupiter and saturn slingshotting all our crafts around tho, the outer system is relatively convenient.
Bob_Kob
5 / 5 (2) Feb 06, 2011

Actually, a neutron star is called a neutron star because it is composed of neutrons. I thought the name would give it away.

It is compressed by gravity to the point where the electrons and protons combine into neutrons due to excessive gravity...Therefore a neutron star has no appreciable amounts of elements except for "Neutronium"...or I prefer to think of it as the largest atomic nucleus - ever.


Dr Manuel has written papers speculating of the possibility of the sun being a neutron star at the core.