With an increase in the amount of activity from the Sun in the form of solar flares and coronal mass ejections, eyes are turning once again toward the great Helios at the center of our solar system. And while many are paying attention to the sun itself, NASA has turned some of its attention toward the incredible discoveries that could soon be made by the first spacecraft to ever orbit the closest planet to the sun, Mercury. What will the Messenger space probe find?
The word historic comes to mind when describing the incredible treatment the planet Mercury is receiving as we finally move in to take a closer look at the tiny planet near the center of our solar system. And with the Messenger scheduled to reach the planet’s orbit in less than a week now it will soon be firing off its thrusters to move into orbit around one of the most mysterious planets in our solar system. As it nears the searing hot planet NASA scientists hope it will reach its expected orbit after traveling 96.35 million miles from its home planet, Earth. The scientists, led by Sean Solomon of the Carnegie Institute hope the mission will explain some of the mysteries about Mercury’s past and teach us both about the planet itself, and the sun it is so closely acquainted with.
It’s been a long road, lasting over six years or calculating, calibrating, and corroborating before the probe was finally ready for its ultimate mission. But with the date of its orbital approach nearing, scientists are sure it will live up to its reputation. It has, after all been very successful in its mission so far. In addition to bringing back data from Venus, Messenger has already sent several digital photos of Mercury’s surface and transmitted them back to NASA scientists back on Earth. And it’s expected to stay around Mercury, orbiting for a year and sending back data that may answer questions about this often forgotten planet. The Messenger has made several revelations in the past, including the hotly debated magnetic field generated by what appears to be a molten core.
Critics of the project have declared Mercury to be of little interest to science and a costly waste of time. But discoveries made of this tiny planet may actually teach us quite a bit about our own planet and possibly the preparations that future missions may have to make in order to colonize other planets such as Mars. And with more attention being paid to the sun now than ever, those supporting the study suggest it’s more important than ever that we study the sun’s behavior and history. While we may not be able to directly send a probe into the sun, we can do the next best thing and study the planet closest to it. What will we learn as Messenger takes its brave journey toward a planet only a little over 1/3 the size of Earth?