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Mercury mapped by Messenger

Messenger's 11 year epic journey yet another triumph for NASA and JPL

Launched in 2004, this NASA probe was the first and only to enter orbit around Mercury. From March 18, 2011, till April 30, 2015, Messenger scanned the surface of Mercury, until it was crashlanded, as planned, on April 30, 2015. Its mission included two fly-bys of Venus, and to study the chemical composition, geology, and magnetic field of Mercury.

Mercury from Mariner 10, 1973
NASA's Messenger scanned the surface of Mercury, until it was crashlanded, as planned, on April 30, 2015

One of the innovative features of this highly-successful mission was the use of a complex series of fly-bys, between Earth (x1), Venus (x2) and Mercury (x3), in order to minimise expenditure of fuel, while slowing enough to enter orbit around Mercury. Many probes fly past planets, in order to profit from the rapid acceleration from their gravity, known as the slingshot, so they can travel the vast distances between planets in reasonable time. However, the disadvantage is that it would take a great deal of energy, heavy fuel, to slow down enough to enter orbit. The technique used by NASA for Messenger proved that it is possible to have the best of both solutions - and get the data we so eagerly want before the original probe designers are in retirement.

Messenger shield
NASA Messenger shield

Messenger spent 10 months taking nearly 100,000 pictures of Mercury's surface, which mapped the surface completely. Due to the closeness of its orbit, it required regular boosts to maintain orbit. When it finally ran out of propellant, after two year-long mission extensions, it was allowed to embrace its new home more intimately.

Among its discoveries was the confirmation that there is water ice at Mercury's North Pole. It also sent back data about how the planet formed, the chemical composition of its surface, the core, the poles, magnetic field and its exosphere.

Article by Andrew Bone, January 6, 2016

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