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The Engineer

The Life and Times of Donald F. Simmons

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Messenger to Mercury

The Messenger probe to Mercury was successfully launched this morning. Yay!

Mercury has only been visited by one spacecraft. Only Pluto, with no visits, is worse off (ignoring the fact it isn't really a planet, which is another discussion). Mariner 10 flew by Mercury in 1974 and again in 75, managing to photograph half of it (the other half has never been seen in detail), and discovering the planet has a strong magnetic field, the only terrestrial planet besides Earth with one.

This lack of attention is partially due to the fact Mercury is difficult to get to, being so deep in the Sun's gravity well. It's actually easier to get to the outer planets than the inner ones. Messenger's mission is ultimately to enter into orbit about Mercury, which is even harder than a simple fly-by.

To accomplish this, Messenger is taking a long route. After launch, it'll first make a fly-by of Earth, using its gravity to change its course and speed. It'll then fly-by Venus twice, and Mercury three times before finally making it into orbit in 2011. Here's to a peaceful trip.