Messenger: The Mercury Orbit

NASA’s unmanned spacecraft Messenger was launched in August of 2004 with one simple sounding goal: Unlock the secrets of the planet Mercury.  Of course that’s easier said than done and Messenger’s mission is nothing short of complex.

At its launch, the last time Mercury had been visited and mapped was in 1973 by NASA’s Mariner 10, which happened to map around 40 to 50% of the planet’s surface.  Fast forward to 2011 and Messenger has made 3 successful flybys of the planet.  Messenger then successfully entered Mercury’s orbit last month and has since sent back some stunning photographs of the innermost planet to the sun.

So far Messenger has discovered large amounts of water in the planet’s exosphere.  Like many other bodies in the solar system, Messenger was also able to detect past volcanic activity on Mercury’s surface.  However, Messenger’s real mission to unlock Mercury’s surface is just beginning as its orbit around the planet will make it easier for this unmanned spacecraft to study Mercury.

A photo of Mercury's surface taken by Messenger (source: NASA)



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