Thursday, March 17, 2011

Messenger enters orbit around Mercury

NASA's Messenger spacecraft tonight became the first to enter orbit around Mercury, mission managers confirmed.

“We are there,” Eric Finnegan, a mission systems engineer at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., announced before 10 p.m. “It was right on the money.”

"This is when the real mission begins," added Sean Solomon, a principal investigator with the Carnegie Institution of Washington. "We are really ready to learn about one of Earth’s nearest neighbors."

The $446-million Messenger mission launched Aug. 3, 2004, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a Delta II rocket. Messenger is an acronym for MErcury surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging.

About the size of a large office desk, the spacecraft flew 4.9 billion miles over the next more than six-and-a-half years.

The journey culminated in a 15-minute engine burn beginning at 8:54 p.m. today that managers said was near perfect, braking the spacecraft by nearly 2,000 mph so it could drop into orbit around the solar system's innermost planet, more than 96 million miles from Earth.

Engineers in APL's Mission Operations Center cheered upon confirmation that the burn was completed successfully.

Messenger scientists now plan to spend a year using the spacecraft's seven instruments to comprehensively map Mercury’s surface and investigate its origins, surface composition, dense iron core and magnetic field.

Messenger will circle Mercury ever 12 hours, flying an eccentric orbit that brings it as close as 124 miles and as far as about 9,500 miles from the surface.

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