Shop Windows to the Universe

Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather by Mike Smith tells the story of our storm warning system. See our online store book collection.
An artist's impression of what MESSENGER may look like when it goes into orbit around Mercury in 2011. The white structure on the left side of the spacecraft is the crucial sunshade.
Image courtesy NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington.

MESSENGER Mission to Mercury

MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) is the name of a spacecraft that will study Mercury; the planet closest to the Sun. MESSENGER is scheduled for launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in early August 2004. After flying by Mercury three times, the spacecraft will go into orbit around the planet in March 2011. MESSENGER will study Mercury from orbit for about one year.

Only one other spacecraft has ever visited Mercury! Mariner 10 flew past this hot planet three times in 1974 and 1975. Because Mariner 10's flybys were all on the same side of Mercury, it was able to map slightly less than half of the planet's surface. One of the main goals of the MESSENGER mission is to complete the job of mapping the entire surface of Mercury by capturing high resolution images of the planet's surface.

MESSENGER will investigate some of Mercury's other mysteries. Mercury is the densest planet and has a large core relative to the planet's overall size. The spacecraft will measure the planet's gravity and its magnetic field, which will help us learn more about its interior structure. MESSENGER will also explore the composition of the materials on Mercury's surface, which will help us understand the formation and history of this small planet. Strange as it may seem, some scientists think there may be ice on Mercury, hiding from the intense heat of the nearby Sun in the forever shaded bottoms of large craters near the planet's poles. MESSENGER's instruments will tell us whether water ice is really to be found in this most unlikely location.

MESSENGER will follow a roundabout route on its trip to Mercury. In order to save fuel (and to keep the cost of the mission low), the spacecraft will fly past Earth in August 2005 and past Venus twice, in October 2006 and June 2007. Each planetary flyby will help steer MESSENGER's trajectory towards Mercury as the gravity of the planets alters the spacecraft's course. Finally, MESSENGER will fly past Mercury three times (January 2008, October 2008 and September 2009) before settling into orbit around the planet in 2011.

The Sun is about eleven times brighter, and hotter, in the neighborhood of Mercury than it is near Earth. MESSENGER's flight systems and instruments had to be carefully designed and tested to ensure that they could survive the incredible heat. The spacecraft also carries a sunshade to shelter it from the intense sunlight, much as beachgoers use umbrellas to mitigate the heat on a summer afternoon.

Shop Windows to the Universe Science Store!

Our online store includes books on science education, ranging from evolution, classroom research, and the need for science and math literacy!

Windows to the Universe Community

News

Opportunities

You might also be interested in:

Ready, Set, SCIENCE!: Putting Research to Work in K-8 Science Classrooms

What types of instructional experiences help K-8 students learn science with understanding? What do science educators teachers, teacher leaders, science specialists, professional development staff, curriculum designers, school administrators need to know to create and support such experiences?...more

Mariner 10 Mission to Mercury

The Mariner 10 mission (USA) to Mercury was launched on November 3, 1973 and arrived at Mercury on March 29, 1974. The spacecraft made three separate passes by the planet, and obtained about 10,000 images...more

Structure of Mercury's Interior

Mercury has a radius of 2439 km (1524 mi), and the metallic iron-nickel core is believed to make up about 75% of this distance. Measurements of the planet's magnetic field made by Mariner 10 as it flew...more

Surface of Mercury

Images of the surface of Mercury obtained by Mariner 10 showed a planet covered with craters, looking very much like the Earth's Moon. During its three passes by the planet, Mariner 10 took pictures of...more

Evolution of Mercury

Mercury, like the other planets, is believed to have formed in the earliest stage of the evolution of the solar system as dust came together to form even larger clumps and eventually small planets or...more

ACE Launch

The Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) was launched at 10:39 a.m., August 25, 1997.The ACE was launched aboard a Delta II rocket. Mission lifetime is expected to be two years for the primary mission with...more

Apollo

To learn more about a specific mission from the Apollo program, the most successful and expensive space program in human history, select one of the links below: Apollo 1 Apollo 7 Apollo 8 Apollo 9 Apollo...more

Apollo 1

The Apollo space program, scheduled for its first launch on Feb. 21, 1967, started in tragedy. On Jan. 27, 1967, astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were executing a dress rehearsal when...more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and NASA, our Founding Partners (the American Geophysical Union and American Geosciences Institute) as well as through Institutional, Contributing, and Affiliate Partners, individual memberships and generous donors. Thank you for your support! NASA AGU AGI NSF