If you thought that NASA was going to just give up on outer-space in the face of a thinning budget, think again: the spacecraft Messenger is scheduled to become the first probe to go into orbit around Mercury on Friday. NASA may be in the process of phasing out its 30 year-old shuttle program, but Messenger looks to be a pretty intense project. We've dug into some of the reports thus far to bring you the highlights of the mission.
You maybe one of those rabid Mars-fans who dismisses Mercury as "boring" and "featureless," but "planetary scientists who know it well beg to differ," says Jonathan Amos at the BBC. "It is a place of extraordinary extremes." For example: its location gives it surface temperatures of near 600 Celsius, while areas of the planet in permanent shadows in the craters on its poles may harbor signs of water or ice.
What This Probe Could Teach Us
For one thing, the probe could give us some information about why Mercury is the densest planet in the Solar System, with two-thirds of its mass due to a metal core. From the BBC: "Mercury fascinates because it may be our best guide to what some of the new planets might be like that are now being discovered around distant suns."
These Missions Can Take a While: When Can We Expect Some Results?
The New Scientist reports that, "even if all goes as planned, [the probe] will not send any images back to Earth immediately, as its instruments will remain off for about a week." Instead, Messenger "will begin regular observations of the planet on 4 April, when it will use seven instruments to study the composition of the planet's surface, measure its topology and record the planet's magnetic field."
Why the Messenger Mission Is Special
It will be the first craft to enter orbit around Mercury. There are differing reports which, as far as we can tell, have to do withi time zones, but it sounds like at 8:45 Eastern Time tonight is when the Messenger will hit the orbit. Before Messenger flew past Mercury in 2004, only one other spacecraft had visited the planet--NASA's Mariner 10 probe.
The Tricky Part of the Mission
The probe's proximity to the sun as well as the heat radiating off the surface of the planet itself pose a unique challenge; Messenger has been built with a ceramic sunshade and mirror-surfaced solar panels to protect it from the heat it will encounter, and will use the distance it gets from the planet during the elliptical orbit at times to send images back to the Earth.
What Other Cool Things Is It Doing?
"Chemical remote sensing," according to Sean Soloman,of the Carnegie Institution of Washington D.C., quoted in the New Scientist. It's going to figure out what the planet is made of, and whether any craters on Mercury have ice in them.
Here's the video simulation entitled "Messenger Mercury Orbit Insertion." Giggle all you want, but we did not make that up.