First Mercury mission to reveal mysterious planet’s secrets

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

WASHINGTON - As NASA’s Messenger spacecraft readies itself for entering the orbit of Mercury on March 17, everyone is waiting with bated breaths to see what secrets it reveals about the planet.

Louise Prockter, deputy project scientist on the mission, talks about the challenges, the early successes of the mission and her own triumphant voyage over the past decade’s work.

The planet has solar radiation 11 times more intense than that on Earth solar radiation 11 times more intense degrees Celsius during the day and -185 degrees Celsius during night time.

The sunshield on Messenger is made of heat-resistant ceramic cloth, cleverly crafted to keep almost all the instruments at room temperature.

The craft will embark upon a highly elliptical orbit 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.

The craft has been using Mercury’s own gravity to line itself up for entry into its desired orbit and has captured several shots of the planet during this time.

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

“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,” wrote Prockter.

Prockter writes in February’s Physics World. (ANI)

Filed under: Science and Technology

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