One Step Closer To Mysterious Mercury
History was made on Thursday, March 17, 2011, when NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), the US government’s space exploration program successfully launched its “Messenger” spacecraft into Mercury’s orbit. Until now, spacecrafts had only been able to ‘fly by’ and capture quick photos of the mysterious sizzling planet which lies closest to the sun.
The day marked the conclusion of six years of hard work by NASA and a 4.9 billion mile (eight billion kilometer) journey by Messenger. Thanks to some very complicated calculations, the NASA team was able to create the perfect gravitational pull from three different planets to insert the spacecraft into Mercury’s orbit.
Messenger, which stands for Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging, contains sophisticated cameras and tools that will map almost every inch of the planet in extreme detail for at least a year or longer, depending on how long its instruments continue to work.
Not An Ordinary Day
Mercury is a small planet, about twice as big in diameter as our moon, and is three times closer to the sun as Earth. Its day temperature ranges around 840°F (450°C), while its night temperature plummets to -346°F (-210°C)!
Being the closest to the sun, it takes Mercury only 88 days to rotate around the sun, but it does so extremely slowly making its days 59 times longer than those on Earth. Put all that together, and a Mercurian day lasts about three-quarters of the Mercurian year!
Messenger will help astronomers find out things like why Mercury’s surface, which is mostly made of iron, is so much denser than Earth, Venus and Mars, and how that surface came to be. They also hope to discover whether the craters located at Mercury's poles and shielded from the sun actually contain ice, or something else. Finally, they hope to determine what causes Mercury to have a strong magnetic field.
Hopefully, mankind is now one giant step closer to solving the Mercurian mystery.