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April 4, 2011

NASA's MESSENGER Spacecraft the First to Orbit Mercury

On March 17th, 2011 the NASA spacecraft MESSENGER was the first spacecraft to achieve orbit around the planet Mercury. This is an historic feat as MESSENGER reaches its destination six and a half years after launch. MESSENGER stands for Mercury Surface, Space, Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging.

The MESSENGER has had quite a journey to Mercury. It was chosen as the seventh Discovery mission by NASA in July 1999. From there it took five years of engineering and scientific design to produce the space worthy craft. MESSENGER launched on August 3, 2004 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. A year later it made a flyby of planet Earth and took off for its first destination, Venus. In October of 2006 MESSENGER arrived at Venus. It took a few flybys to take pictures of Venus over the next few years and then it set off for Mercury. The spacecraft reached Mercury in January of 2008 and took several years until it finally reached a stable orbit in March 2011.

About the MESSENGER Spacecraft

MESSENGER is a highly sophisticated space ship made from state of the art technology and science. Mercury is the closest planet to the sun and is very hot. MESSENGER has a heat-resistant cloth shield that will help protect it from the sun. Most of MESSENGER's outside structure is made from a material called graphite epoxy. The electronics and instruments are powered by solar panels and a battery. The outside of MESSENGER is covered with instruments that will take all sorts of measurements of the planet. Scientists can then analyze these measurements to answer questions they have about Mercury.

The Mission

Mercury is the least understood planet of the four rocky planets (Mars, Earth, Venus, Mercury). Understanding Mercury is important to scientists so that can learn how the planets in the Solar System were formed. To this end, the MESSENGER and its instruments were designed for a mission goal to answer six primary questions about Mercury:

Why is Mercury so dense?

What is the geologic history of Mercury?

What is the nature of Mercury's magnetic field?

What is the structure of Mercury's core?

What are the unusual materials at Mercury's poles?

What volatiles are important at Mercury?

What's next for MESSENGER?

Now that the MESSENGER is in Orbit the next step is for scientists to turn on the science instruments and test them out. This will take a few days. On April 4th the instruments should be up and running and the scientists will take over the mission and start gathering data.

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