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The MESSENGER Space Probe

In ancient Roman mythology, Mercury was the messenger of the Gods, so the NASA space craft launched to study Mercury was called MESSENGER.  It is written in all capitals because NASA went to some trouble to think of a name where MESSENGER was an acronym.  It stands for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, Geochemistry and Ranging: a very contrived name.  Before this probe, Mercury had only been visited by one space ship.  Mariner 10 in 1975 had gone close to the planet and had mapped about 45 percent of its surface.

 It is a lot easier to fly past Mercury than to go into orbit.

 If you simply went from the Earth to Mercury, you would be going much too fast to go into orbit.  You cannot use Mercury‚Äôs atmosphere to slow you down because it does not have an atmosphere.  Messenger has been sent on a very complicated path.

It lifted Off from Cape Canaveral on August the 3rd 2004.   On August the 2nd 2005, the space ship came close to the Earth again, taking measurements.  On October the 24th 2006 the space ship went past Venus.  Then on June the 5th2007, it went past Venus again, setting the scene for three fly bys of Mercury, on January the 14th 2008; on October the 6th 2008 and again on September the 29 2009.

If everything goes to plan, the space ship will begin to orbit Mercury on March the 18th 2011, and will orbit the planet for a year.  This complicated course was set up to slow down the space ship down. It also gathered valuable data on each planetary fly by, so although it was designed primarily to find out about Mercury, it has already sent back valuable data about all three planets it has visited.

 Mercury Observations

It is hoped that by the end of the mission we will have much better maps of Mercury and know a lot more about its magnetic field and composition.

It is hoped to find out if the planet is shrinking.

Mercury October 2008

By NASA via Wikimedia Commons.