NASA launched it’s space craft named MESSENGER into space on August 3, 2004 as to study the chemical composition, geology and magnetic field of the planet. MESSENGER entered Mercury’s orbit on March 18, 2011. The space craft took close to 7 years to enter the planet’s orbit.
The First Mission to Mercury.
MESSENGER which stands as a backronym for “MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging” was the first dedicated space craft to enter Mercury’s orbit and study it closely.
Before MESSEGER, Mariner 10 was launched to study both the planets, Venus and Mercury. It was launched on Nov 3, 1973 and was closest to Mercury on 16th March 1975. The motive of the space craft was to study the atmosphere, physical characteristics and the surface of the planets. Soon after the launch, it returned pictures of Earth and the Moon, as it sped towards Venus.
As Mercury is closest planet to the Sun, the temperature on the planet can reach up to 440-450°C. To resist this high temperature, MESSENGER was built using a heat-resistant ceramic cloth.
Instruments MESSENGER carried
MDIS Mercury Dual Imaging System
This system consisted of wide angle of multi spectrum and narrow angle monochrome cameras to image the surface of the planet.
GRNS: Gama Ray and Neutron Spectrometer
GRNS was used to map different elements and helped to determine the existence of ice on the poles of the planet.
MLA: Mercury Laser Altimeter
This instrument was used to produce accurate description of Mercury’s Topography.
It mapped Mercury’s magnetic field and searched for regions of magnetized rocks in the crust.
EPPS: Energetic Particle and Plasma Spectrometer.
EPPS measured the distribution, composition and energy of charged particles in Mercury’s magnetosphere.
XRS: X-ray Spectrometer
The purpose of the X-Ray Spectrometer is to determine what elements are present, and how abundant they are, on the very surface of Mercury.
RS: Radio Science
Radio Science measured slight changes in the spacecraft’s velocity by Doppler Effect.
MESSENGER probe accomplished it’s main motive of determining the surface composition, it also revealed it’s it’s geological history, discovered the internal magnetic field in depth and verified the presence of ice on the poles. Unfortunately the spacecraft slammed into the planet as it ran out of propellent on April 30, 2015.
BepiColomboa spacecraft in collaboration with JAXA and ESA has already been launched into space on Oct 19, 2019 and is set to reach Mercury’s orbit in 2025. It will fly across Venus in 2020 and is estimated to pass Mercury in 2021. The space craft includes 2 space probes which are provided by ESA and JAXA respectively. Stay tuned for updates.