Mercury probe begins journey

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – The spacecraft Messenger rocketed away Tuesday on a long quest to reveal the secrets of mysterious, superhot Mercury, the sun’s nearest planet.

“A voyage of mythological proportions,” a NASA flight controller announced as soon as Messenger shed its final rocket stage hours before dawn.

The journey will take 61/2 years, covering nearly 5 billion miles on a roundabout ramble through the inner solar system. The probe should reach Mercury by March 2011, then spend a year gathering data.

Scientists want to know how the planet turned out the way it did, and whether the perpetually dark craters at the poles hold ice. Anything scientists can learn about how Mercury formed will shed light on the origins of Venus, Earth and Mars, each one very different.

Tuesday’s launch came one day later than planned. Monday’s attempt had to be scrubbed because of bad weather.

It was a busy night for the U.S. space agency with the Mercury send-off coming less than an hour before another NASA unit directed a spacewalk by the astronaut and cosmonaut aboard the international space station.

The Messenger mission is part of NASA’s bargain-focused Discovery program – $427 million for the launch and all the scientific analysis years later in a mission devised by Johns Hopkins University.

Scientists have been yearning to study Mercury up close ever since Mariner 10 zoomed by three times in the mid-1970s. If all goes well, Messenger will be the first spacecraft to orbit the planet.

Messenger cannot fly directly to Mercury because it can’t carry the fuel necessary for such a flight. Instead, it will fly once past Earth, twice past Venus and three times past Mercury for gravity assists – and make 15 loops around the sun – before slowing enough to slip into orbit around the small, hot planet.

The heat encountered once in orbit will be the equivalent of 11 suns beating down on Earth, about 700 degrees. But its instruments will operate at room temperature, protected by a custom-built ceramic-fabric sunshade just one-quarter of an inch thick. All Mariner 10 had was a quaintly old-fashioned umbrella.

That’s why, in large part, it’s taken so long to return to Mercury. Scientists had to figure out how to beat the heat.

Mariner 10 provided “a glimpse of this planet of extremes,” said Orlando Figueroa, director of NASA’s solar system exploration division.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Local News

People look out onto Mountain Loop Mine from the second floor hallway of Fairmount Elementary on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Mining company ordered to stop work next to school south of Everett

After operating months without the right paperwork, OMA Construction applied for permits last week. The county found it still violates code.

Snohomish County Jail. (Sue Misao / Herald file)
Arlington woman arrested in 2005 case of killed baby in Arizona airport

Annie Sue Anderson, 51, has been held in the Snohomish County Jail since December. She’s facing extradition.

A Cessna 150 crashed north of Paine Field on Friday evening, Feb. 16, 2024, in Mukilteo, Washington. The pilot survived without serious injury. (Courtesy of Richard Newman.)
‘I’m stuck in the trees’: 911 call recounts plane crash near Paine Field

Asad Ali was coming in for a landing in a Cessna 150 when he crashed into woods south of Mukilteo. Then he called 911 — for 48 minutes.

Everett
Snohomish County likely to feel more like winter, beginning Monday

Get ready for a mix of rain and snow this week, along with cooler temperatures.

The Nimbus Apartments are pictured on Wednesday, March 1, 2023, in downtown Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Snohomish County has the highest rent in the state. Could this bill help?

In one year, rent for the average two-bedroom apartment in Snohomish County went up 20%. A bill seeks to cap any increases at 7%.

A Snohomish County no trespassing sign hangs on a fence surrounding the Days Inn on Monday, Feb. 12, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Meth cleanup at Edmonds motel-shelter made matters worse, report says

Contamination has persisted at two motels Snohomish County bought to turn into shelters in 2022. In January, the county cut ties with two cleanup agencies.

A child gets some assistance dancing during Narrow Tarot’s set on the opening night of Fisherman’s Village on Thursday, May 18, 2023, at Lucky Dime in downtown Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Drive-By Truckers, Allen Stone headline 2024 Fisherman’s Village lineup

Big names and local legends alike are coming to downtown Everett for the music festival from May 16 to 18.

Sen. Patty Murray attends a meeting at the Everett Fire Department’s Station 1 on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Sen. Murray seeks aid for Snohomish County’s fentanyl, child care crises

The U.S. senator visited Everett to talk with local leaders on Thursday, making stops at the YMCA and a roundtable with the mayor.

Anthony Boggess
Arlington man sentenced for killing roommate who offered shelter

Anthony Boggess, 33, reported hearing the voices of “demons” the night he strangled James Thrower, 65.

Brenda Mann Harrison
Taking care of local news is best done together

The Herald’s journalism development director offers parting thoughts.

Lake Serene in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. (U.S. Forest Service)
How will climate change affect you? New tool gives an educated guess

The Climate Vulnerability Tool outlines climate hazards in Snohomish County — and it may help direct resources.

Ken Florczak, president of the five-member board at Sherwood Village Mobile Home community on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024 in Mill Creek, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
How Mill Creek mobile home residents bought the land under their feet

At Sherwood Village, residents are now homeowners. They pay a bit more each month to keep developers from buying their property.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.