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MESSENGER spacecraft successfully enters orbit around Mercury

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Mercury during a 2008 MESSENGER flybyOn March 17, after a roundabout, nearly seven-year journey, NASA’s MESSENGER probe became the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury, the closest planet to the sun.

MESSENGER, which stands for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging, launched in 2004 on an inward-spiraling path through the inner solar system that covered nearly eight billion kilometers and included a number of planetary flybys before reaching Mercury orbit. With MESSENGER reaching its destination, humankind now has orbiters in place around Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Saturn and the moon.

Among MESSENGER’s tasks during its one-year primary science mission: making topographic maps of Mercury and characterizing the planet’s magnetic field and geologic history, including the role of volcanism in its relatively recent past. The science phase of the mission is scheduled to begin April 4, after mission scientists have had a chance to check on the status of MESSENGER, which is operating in an environment of intense solar radiation, and power up the spacecraft’s instruments. But MESSENGER has already told planetary scientists a great deal about Mercury, which had only been partially mapped prior to the spacecraft’s three flybys en route to orbit in 2008 and 2009. Those flybys filled in most of the cartographic gaps and provided some tantalizing hints of the science to come.

"Despite its proximity to Earth, the planet Mercury has for decades been comparatively unexplored," Sean Solomon of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, MESSENGER’s principal investigator, said in a prepared NASA statement. "For the first time in history, a scientific observatory is in orbit about our solar system’s innermost planet. Mercury’s secrets, and the implications they hold for the formation and evolution of Earth-like planets, are about to be revealed."

Photo of Mercury as seen by MESSENGER in 2008: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

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  1. 1. Wladik 3:04 am 03/20/2011

    I wonder whether it would be reasonable to combine the missions to the inner planets with the experiments with the solar sail?

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  2. 2. Carl.R.Larson 6:21 pm 03/20/2011

    So interesting. The universe must look so interesting from Mercury. I hope this satellite can help us better understand the formation of our solar system, as well as gaining a better understanding of our sun. Wouldn’t this be the closest orbiting human-made satellite to the Sun?

    - Carl

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  3. 3. oldfartfox 8:13 pm 03/22/2011

    The assertion that Tang is useful definitely calls Unbeliever’s credibility into question.

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  4. 4. Carl.R.Larson 11:14 pm 03/22/2011

    @oldfartfox: you can’t just write someone’s points off because they made a bold assertation you disagree with. You need to actually attack the substance of what they say. Watch as I demonstrate.

    @unbeliever: I laughed when you said "Being inclined mathematically and engineering-wise is an inborn trait unfairly distributed." Math is about hard work. Some are born with a passion for numbers, but this only inspires that hard work. It’s a lazy cop out to conclude that you’re "not born with it," and just give up at the outset.

    Speak for yourself when you say young people don’t care about space. I’m 24 and space kicks ass. The destiny of the human race lies in either space or death. Also, I want to pee in zero gravity someday, I bet that would be crazy.

    Your main thesis is that NASA is a waste of money. Do you have *any* idea how much more is spent on social programs than on NASA? Think of NYC as social program spending, and Trenton is NASA. NASA has no funding. Pick a better scapegoat (farm subsidies are a great starting place).

    America doesnt have great pyramids, we have a flag on the lunar surface. In a thousand years, we won’t remember the "genetically disadvantaged" who gave up on ambition apparently since birth forward. We’ll remember who first walked on the moon.

    You need to stop seeing everything through the narrow lens of this complaint obviously rooted not in the numbers but in headlines, and instead see reality through every possible perspective. Knowledge speaks and wisdom listens – may we all have the awareness to know when to shut the hell up.

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  5. 5. superluminal 12:04 am 03/23/2011

    We’ll have that missing strip on the maps of Mercury no more!

    @Carl.R.Larson: I’m 16 and space is awesome.

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  6. 6. Daniel35 7:09 pm 03/23/2011

    Unbeliever, I partially agree with you. We clearly go to far when we get to cosmology, which begins to be assumptions often based on misunderstandings.

    If the Chinese think they can profit by going to the moon, let them have it. I’m more in favor of converting an asteroid into living space. But such missions are also about stimulating our minds, just as do other kinds of mysteries and puzzles. What is the purpose of being here if not to imagine being beyond? Space missions are also for discovering the unexpected, which sometimes turns out to be critical to our survival. I hope the Mercury mission will also turn it’s attention to the sun at close range, while it’s in the neighborhood.

    Also, I’m not in favor of spending much on the "sub-par" or "inherently sick and infirm". I think it would be enough to just have everyone wealthy (in real terms such as available energy) in proportion to real and potential social contribution, and it’s far from that now. (Real and potential could be proportionate if we had an equitable education system.)

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  7. 7. Cigarshaped 8:41 pm 03/23/2011

    Worthy aspirations Carl:".. help us better understand the formation of our solar system, as well as gaining a better understanding of our sun."

    I just wonder if planetologists and astronomers can unblinker long enough to see what is really in front of them. A competing Science mag asks this: "The planet preserves a virtually unblemished record of impacts across its near airless surface. .., astronomers will be able to deduce the frequency and ferocity of collisions close to the sun during Mercury’s lifetime – crucial for the understanding the how the solar system formed."

    Typically “..the Caloris Basin, ..resulted from a collision with an asteroid.”
    But how can collisions produce these type of shapes? See the terracing of crater walls, concentric ringed structure and flat melted floors. These are far more reminiscent of blisters found on lightning arrestors following a lightning strike (cathodic electrical cratering). Could there be an electrical origin for the circular patterns etched into planet surfaces? Unless experiments show otherwise??

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  8. 8. eanassir 10:40 am 03/25/2011

    Mercury does not spin around its axis; and like our Moon, it continuously keeps one face to the sun, while the other face does not see the sun continuously.

    This led to the one hemisphere facing the sun had contiuous day, while the continuous night is in the opposite side.

    This was because its internal heat had been lost by time and its gravity became weak which could not keep its atmosphere.

    Now it is without atmosphere, and its surface is obvious and manifest (unlike Venus which had its perpetual cloud and the smoke fills its atmosphere.)

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