MESSENGER probe locks into orbit around Mercury

Artist's conception of MESSENGER approaching Mercury (Credit: NASA)

For the first time ever, we have a probe orbiting the planet Mercury. The MESSENGER probe was successfully maneuvered into orbit around Mercury yesterday following a six-and-a-half-year series of gravitational flybys past Earth, Venus, and Mercury, to nudge it into course. Starting in April, MESSENGER will make two orbits of Mercury per (Earth) day, collecting information to send back to scientists on Earth.

Previous missions to Mercury include the Mariner 10 spacecraft, which gathered data as it quickly flew past Mercury three times in 1974-1975, and three data-collecting flybys of Mercury by the MESSENGER probe in 2008-2009.

NASA scientists hope the mission will help answer several questions about Mercury, including why the tiny planet is so dense, what its geological history is, and whether there is actually ice at its poles.

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7 thoughts on “MESSENGER probe locks into orbit around Mercury

  1. Presumably that’s a jab at the last question, which does sound rather preposterous. However, keep in mind two things: 1) there is some peculiarly reflective material at the poles of Mercury that could, in fact, be ice; and 2) the temperature of the night-time side of Mercury is about -150oC (colder than Antarctica) despite Mercury’s proximity to the Sun. It’s possible that the rotational axis is aligned in such a way that the poles are perpetually in a dark, frigid state that would allow the accumulation of ice.

  2. Your series of questions concerning Mercury had the same cadence of “The Walrus and the Carpenter” in my head, and coupled with the wild idea of ice on the planet, well, I had to quote from the poem.

    The idea of ice also assumes that the materials needed to form ice would be able to accumulate in the perpetual dark poles, and that keeps me from thinking there is ice. I think it’s more likely it’s a metal alloy, melted and frozen as the planet turns, causing the reflection.

    But this a perfect example where empirical evidence will prove me right, er, prove what is really going on, over theories punted around on a blog :)

  3. I just read Alice in Wonderland a few weeks ago and still managed to miss the reference. … Hold on, checking Wikipedia … Ah, the poem is in the sequel, so that’s why I don’t remember it.

    WRT possible ice at the poles, isn’t it nice to know that at least a few scientists still prefer the old, boring tradition of looking for evidence to support hypotheses? :D

  4. Since you have already read Alice in Wonderland, I recommend Through the Looking-Glass. One of the best characters therein is Humpty-Dumpty.

    After that, watch Disney’s 1951 cartoon, I think it’s one of the best versions of Alice.

    And yes, I’m glad to see that some scientists still prefer to gather evidence! :)

  5. If Looking-Glass is available via Project Gutenberg, I’ll read it on my Nook. (It’s amazing how cheap I’ve gotten since I bought an e-reader.)

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