See Mercury's Surface For Yourself On MESSENGER's 10th Anniversary [VIDEO]
To commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the launch of NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft, the US space agency has released a short movie of the craft's flight over of Mercury, offering a unique close-and-personal view of the desolate planet's surface.
[Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory]
Back in 2004, the MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging spacecraft (MESSENGER) left Earth's atmosphere on its way towards Mercury, the scorched planet closest to our solar system's Sun.
The tiny spacecraft was created with the intention of gathering data on Mercury in close and risky fly-bys.
Amazingly, limits in technology and the simple laws of gravitational pull dictated that MESSENGER wouldn't finally fall into a close orbit around Mercury until 2011, after a 4.9 billion mile journey that took the tiny spacecraft in trips around the Sun 15 times, the Earth once, Venus twice, and Mercury (in wider orbits) three times.
"We have operated successfully in orbit for more than three Earth years and more than 14 Mercury years," MESSENGER Mission Operations Manager Andy Calloway, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), proudly explained in a recent statement. "The MESSENGER spacecraft operates in one of the most challenging and demanding space environments in our Solar System, and we have met that challenge directly through innovation and hard work."
Mission and Spacecraft Systems Engineer Dan O'Shaughnessy of APL added that the simple design and pathing of the MESSENGER alone was "an impressive accomplishment" and "amazing feat."
So what has this impressive work of engineering uncovered? As it seems it will always be with space, a lot more mysteries.
"Geochemical measurements have revealed a surface poor in iron, but rich in moderately volatile elements such as sulfur and sodium," explained principle investigator Larry Nittler. "These results rule out some long-standing theories put forward to explain Mercury's anomalously high density compared with the other planets in the inner solar system."
Unfortunately, the MESSENGER's 10th anniversary is bittersweet. The craft has only enough propulsion for a final eight months of mission time before it stops whipping over the skies of Mercury forever.