CU-Boulder scientists ready for MESSENGER Mission flyby of Mercury

Jan 10, 2008
MESSENGER at Mercury
Artist's concept of the NASA's MESSENGER spaceraft at Mercury. Credit: NASA

NASA will point a power-packed $8.7 million University of Colorado at Boulder space instrument at some of the last unexplored terrain in the inner solar system when the MESSENGER spacecraft whips within 125 miles of Mercury's surface Jan. 14 at a mind-boggling 141,000 miles per hour.

Launched in August 2004, MESSENGER has already flown by Venus twice and will make the first of three flybys of Mercury next week before finally settling into orbit around Mercury in 2011. The only other time Mercury was visited by a spacecraft was in 1974 and 1975, when NASA's Mariner 10 spacecraft made three flybys and mapped roughly 45 percent of the bizarre planet's hot, rocky surface, according to NASA.

The car-sized MESSENGER spacecraft is carrying seven instruments -- a camera, a magnetometer, an altimeter and four spectrometers. The Mercury Atmospheric and Surface Composition Spectrometer, or MASCS, built by CU-Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, was miniaturized to weigh less than seven pounds.

The instrument will make measurements of Mercury's surface and tenuous atmosphere, said LASP Senior Research Associate William McClintock, a MESSENGER co-investigator who led the MASCS instrument development team. MASCS breaks up light like a prism, and since each element and compound in the universe has a unique spectral "signature," scientists can determine the distribution and abundance of various minerals and gases on the planet's surface and its atmosphere.

"Believe it or not, scientists have only a vague idea today about the composition of Mercury's surface," said McClintock. "The instrument will make ultraviolet, visible and near infrared observations of the surface of Mercury, which together should tell us a lot more about the planet's composition, formation and evolution."

MESSENGER is slated to zip by Mercury at about 11:25 a.m. MST on Jan. 14 and take data and images for about 90 minutes, said LASP's Mark Lankton, program manager for MASCS. The data will be sent via NASA's Deep Space Network to the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University -- which is managing the mission for NASA -- where mission scientists, including researchers and students at LASP's Space Technology Building at the CU Research Park, will access it electronically, he said.

The circuitous, 4.9 billion-mile-journey to Mercury requires more than seven years and 13 loops around the sun to guide it closer to Mercury's orbit. The craft is equipped with a large sunshade and heat-resistant ceramic fabric to protect it from the sun. More than half of the weight of the 1.2-ton spacecraft consists of propellant and helium.

"The LASP team is really spun up for this flyby," said Lankton. "It's very exciting, because this is the beginning of the science phase of the MESSENGER mission. It's a chance for us to make observations that have never been made before."

MASCS will scan Mercury's thin atmosphere -- known as the exosphere -- to determine its composition, and the spacecraft will fly through a comet-shaped cloud of sodium enveloping the planet during the flyby, said McClintock. "We will fly it right down the cloud's tail," he said. "Understanding how the cloud is replenished with sodium is one of the many pieces of this giant puzzle at Mercury we hope to solve."

LASP Director Daniel Baker, also a co-investigator on the MESSENGER mission, will be studying Mercury's magnetic field and its interaction with the solar wind, including violent "sub-storms" that occur in the planet's vicinity. The strong magnetic field on Mercury indicates it most likely has a liquid or molten core like that on Earth, Baker said.

Mercury is about two-thirds of the way nearer to the sun than Earth and is bombarded with 10 times the solar radiation, said Baker. Sandwiched by the sun and Mercury -- which has daytime temperatures of about 800 degrees Fahrenheit -- the MESSENGER spacecraft will "essentially be on a huge rotisserie," he said.

LASP's vast experience in space during the last several decades should serve the team well. "We are the only space lab in the world to design and build instruments that are either on the way to or have visited every planet in the solar system," Baker said. "Because of our successes, I view our scientists, engineers and support staff and students like a Super Bowl team. We have star players at every position."

Dozens of undergraduates and graduate students will be involved in analyzing data as information and images begin pouring back to Earth from MESSENGER, dubbed "the little spacecraft that could" by LASP scientists. "This mission is going to be a field day for students, not only at CU-Boulder, but for students all over the world," said Baker.

Source: University of Colorado at Boulder

Explore further: NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

40th anniversary of Mariner 10 Venus mission

Feb 06, 2014

Exactly 40 Years ago today on Feb. 5, 1974, Mariner 10, accomplished a history making and groundbreaking feat when the NASA science probe became the first spacecraft ever to test out and execute the technique ...

Recommended for you

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

8 hours ago

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Sun emits a mid-level solar flare

Apr 18, 2014

The sun emitted a mid-level solar flare, peaking at 9:03 a.m. EDT on April 18, 2014, and NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured images of the event. Solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation. Harmful ...

Impact glass stores biodata for millions of years

Apr 18, 2014

(Phys.org) —Bits of plant life encapsulated in molten glass by asteroid and comet impacts millions of years ago give geologists information about climate and life forms on the ancient Earth. Scientists ...

The importance of plumes

Apr 18, 2014

The Hubble Space Telescope is famous for finding black holes. It can pick out thousands of galaxies in a patch of sky the size of a thumbprint. The most powerful space telescope ever built, the Hubble provided ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Cosmologists weigh cosmic filaments and voids

(Phys.org) —Cosmologists have established that much of the stuff of the universe is made of dark matter, a mysterious, invisible substance that can't be directly detected but which exerts a gravitational ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.