Today, Mar 17, NASA’s MESSENGER probe will become the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury. It’s a seminal moment in planetary exploration. Researchers can finally take a good long look at a rocky world that is both akin to Earth and shockingly alien.
The sun blazes up to 11 times brighter there than at Earth, and surface temperatures at Mercury’s equator can reach 450 degrees Celsius (840 degrees Fahrenheit). The small planet’s hot dayside radiates much of that thermal energy back into space at a rate four times that at Earth.
Researchers are anxious for new discoveries at Mercury. It’s a planet of many mysteries: the most active planetary exosphere in the whole solar system, a surprisingly “live” magnetic field that has puzzled scientists for years, a core that makes up 60% of the planet’s mass and is at least partially liquid, an intriguing landscape pitted with an interesting variety of craters and volcanic vents and marked by towering scarps that snake hundreds of miles across the planet’s face. And that’s just for starters.
MESSENGER is bristling with scientific instruments – high resolution imagers, lasers, and magnetometers – designed to solve these mysteries once and for all.
For further reading visit http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2011/15mar_messenger/
NASA Explorer Schools educators can check out these related Resources on the Virtual Campus:
• Teaching Module – MESSENGER: Cooling with Sunshades
• Teaching Module -MESSENGER: My Angle on Cooling-Effects of Distance and Inclination
• NASA Now: MESSENGER in Orbit
Link to the NES Virtual Campus home page.