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This is what an artist thinks MESSENGER will look like in orbit around Mercury. The white sunshade is on the left side of the spacecraft.
Image courtesy NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington.

MESSENGER Mission to Mercury

MESSENGER is a spacecraft that will study Mercury; the planet closest to the Sun. MESSENGER will blast off from Florida in early August 2004. The spacecraft will go into orbit around Mercury in March 2011. It will study Mercury from orbit for about one year.

MESSENGER is only the second spacecraft ever to visit Mercury. The first was Mariner 10. Mariner 10 flew by Mercury three times in 1974 and 1975. Mariner 10 took pictures of about half of Mercury. One of MESSENGER's main goals is to take pictures of the rest of Mercury.

Besides taking pictures, MESSENGER will study the surface and interior of Mercury. It will also measure Mercury's magnetic field. Mercury is very dense and has a large core. Scientists hope this new spacecraft will help us learn why. They think MESSENGER will also help us learn more about the formation of Mercury, and how the planet has changed over time.

Why will MESSENGER take seven years to reach Mercury? NASA needed to keep the cost of the mission low, so they had to use as little fuel as possible. MESSENGER will fly past Earth once, Venus twice, and Mercury three times before it goes into orbit around Mercury. When it flies by planets, the gravity of the planets will help steer MESSENGER in the right direction without using fuel.

Sunshine is very hot near Mercury. MESSENGER has a special sunshade that will keep the spacecraft from getting too hot. The sunshade is like a beach umbrella!

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA