Mercury Spacecraft’s 2015 Death Watch Could Go One More Month

If all goes well — and there’s no guarantee of this — NASA’s venerable Mercury sentinel may have an extra month of life left in it before it goes on a death plunge to the planet’s surface. Managers think they have found a way to stretch its fuel to allow the spacecraft to fly until April, measuring the planet’s magnetic field before falling forever.

Success will partially depend on a maneuver that will take place on Jan. 21, when MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) will raise its minimum altitude. But moreover, pushing the impact back to April will be the first extended test of using helium as a propellant in hydrazine thrusters, components that were not actually designed to get this done. But the team says it is possible, albeit less efficiently.

“Typically, when … liquid propellant is completely exhausted, a spacecraft can no longer make adjustments to its trajectory,” stated Dan O’Shaughnessy, a mission systems engineer with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

“However, gaseous helium was used to pressurize MESSENGER’s propellant tanks, and this gas can be exploited to continue to make small adjustments to the trajectory.”

A crater on Mercury at the edge of the larger Oskison crater located in the plains north of Caloris basin. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington
A crater on Mercury at the edge of the larger Oskison crater located in the plains north of Caloris basin. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

However long the mission does end up lasting, MESSENGER has shown us some unexpected things about the planet that is closest to the Sun. Turns out that water ice likely lies in some of the shadowed craters on its surface. And that organics, which were possibly delivered to Earth via comets and asteroids, are also on Mercury.

Atmospheric changes have been seen in the tenuous gases surrounding Mercury, showing a definite influence from the nearby Sun. And even the magnetic field lines on the planet are influenced by charged particles from our closest star.

And with MESSENGER viewing the planet from close-up, NASA and Johns Hopkins hope to learn more about volcanic flows, how crater walls are structured, and other features that you can see on the airless planet. Despite a 10-year mission and more than three years orbiting Mercury, it’s clear from MESSENGER that there is so much more to learn.

Source: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

Name That Crater On Mercury! MESSENGER Team Opens Public Contest

Here’s your rare chance to leave a lasting mark on a piece of the Solar System. The team behind the MESSENGER spacecraft — that machine orbiting Mercury since 2011 — is asking the public to help them name craters on the planet, in an open contest.

Fifteen finalists will be forwarded to the official arbitrator of astronomical names on Earth, the International Astronomical Union, which will pick five names in time for the end of the MESSENGER mission this spring.

“This brave little craft, not much bigger than a Volkswagen Beetle, has travelled more than 8 billion miles [12.8 billion kilometers] since 2004—getting to the planet and then in orbit,” stated Julie Edmonds of the Carnegie Institution for Science, who leads the MESSENGER education and public outreach team.

A crater on Mercury at the edge of the larger Oskison crater located in the plains north of Caloris basin. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington
A crater on Mercury at the edge of the larger Oskison crater located in the plains north of Caloris basin. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

“We would like to draw international attention to the achievements of the mission and the guiding engineers and scientists on Earth who have made the MESSENGER mission so outstandingly successful.”

Here are some guidelines to increase your chances of success:
– Make sure the name does not have significance politically, religiously or for the military;
– Focus on names of writers, artists and composers and research them thoroughly, as you will be expected to provide a justification;
– Don’t pick a name that has been used elsewhere in the Solar System.

Mercury's southern polar region as seen from MESSENGER. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins UniversityApplied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington).
Mercury’s southern polar region as seen from MESSENGER. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins UniversityApplied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington).

Some additional hints come from the official contest website, which adds that the competition is open to everyone except MESSENGER’s education and public outreach team and that entries close Jan. 15.

Impact craters are named in honor of people who have made outstanding or fundamental contributions to the Arts and Humanities (visual artists, writers, poets, dancers, architects, musicians, composers and so on). The person must have been recognized as an art-historically significant figure for more than 50 years and must have been dead for at least three years. We are particularly interested in submissions that honor people from nations and cultural groups that are under-represented amongst the currently-named craters.

This isn’t the first planet with recent open invitations for the public to name craters. Earlier this year, astronomy education group Uwingu began asking for suggestions to name craters on Mars for maps that will be used by the Mars One team as it plans to land a private crewed mission on the planet in the coming years. Those names, however, will likely not be recognized by the IAU (the official statement is here.)

Could Mercury Get A Meteor Shower From Comet Encke?

We’re sure going to miss the MESSENGER spacecraft at Mercury when it concludes its mission in 2015, because it keeps bringing us really unexpected news about the Sun’s closest planet. Here’s the latest: Mercury may get a periodic meteor shower when it passes through the debris trail of Comet Encke.

Why do scientists suspect this? It’s not from patiently watching for shooting stars. Instead, they believe the signature of calcium in Mercury’s tenuous atmosphere may be pointing to a pattern.

MESSENGER (which stands for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) has been orbiting the planet for three Earth years and sees regular “surges” in calcium abundance on a predictable schedule. The researchers suspect it’s because of bits of dust colliding with Mercury and ricocheting bits of calcium up from the surface.

Mercury also picks up bits of dust from interplanetary debris, but the scientists say it’s not enough to account for the amounts of calcium they see. Extrapolating, the researchers suspect it must occur as the planet passes through debris left behind from a comet or asteroid. There are a small number of such small bodies that do this, and the scientists narrowed it down to Encke.

Illustration of MESSENGER in orbit around Mercury (NASA/JPL/APL)
Illustration of MESSENGER in orbit around Mercury (NASA/JPL/APL)

Computer simulations of the comet’s debris showed a slight difference from what researchers predicted, but they believe it’s because of variations in Mercury’s orbit as it gets tugged by larger planets, particularly Jupiter. Encke itself takes about 3.3 years to do one lap around the Sun, and has been photographed by MESSENGER in the past.

“The possible discovery of a meteor shower at Mercury is really exciting and especially important because the plasma and dust environment around Mercury is relatively unexplored,” stated lead author Rosemary Killen, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

MESSENGER, meanwhile, is burning off the last of its fuel to stay in orbit; the final engine maneuver is expected for Jan. 21. Once that’s finished, the spacecraft will slowly spiral down towards the planet for an expected impact in March, ending the mission.

Source: NASA

Mercury Spacecraft Moves To Testing Ahead Of 2016 Launch To Sun’s Closest Planet

After facing down a couple of delays due to technical difficulties, Europe’s and Japan’s first Mercury orbiter is entering some of the final stages ahead of its 2016 launch. Part of the BepiColombo orbiter moved into a European testing facility this past week that will shake, bake and otherwise test the hardware to make sure it’s ready for its extreme mission.

Because Mercury is so close to the Sun, BepiColombo is going to have a particularly harsh operating environment. Temperatures there will soar as high as 350 degrees Celsius (662 degrees Fahrenheit), requiring officials to change the chamber to simulate these higher temperatures. Time will tell if the spacecraft is ready for the test.

BepiColombo is also special because it includes not one orbiting spacecraft, but two. Flying in different orbits, the Mercury Planetary Orbiter and the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter will try to learn more about this mysterious planet. NASA’s MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging) spacecraft has spent the past few  years orbiting Mercury, but before then, we had very little information on the planet. (And before MESSENGER, only brief flybys from NASA’s Mariner 10 in the 1970s turned up spacecraft-based information on Mercury.)

MESSENGER has turned up quite a few surprises. It’s showed us more about the nature of Mercury’s tenuous atmosphere and it’s discovered probable water ice (!) in permanently shadowed areas, among other things. The European Space Agency and Japan hope to push our understanding of the Sun’s closest planet when BepiColombo gets there in 2024.

On Oct. 30, 2014, the Mercury Planetary Orbiter (part of the BepiColombo mission) was moved into the European Space Agency's space simulator for testing ahead of the expected 2016 launch. Credit: ESA–A. Le’Floch
On Oct. 30, 2014, the Mercury Planetary Orbiter (part of the BepiColombo mission) was moved into the European Space Agency’s space simulator for testing ahead of the expected 2016 launch. Credit: ESA–A. Le’Floch

There are so many questions that Mercury presents us, and BepiColombo is trying to answer a few of those. For example, Mercury’s density is higher than the rest of the other terrestrial planets for reasons that are poorly understood. Scientists aren’t sure if its core is liquid or solid, or even it has active plate tectonics as Earth does. Its magnetic field is a mystery, given that Mars and Venus and the Moon don’t have any. And there are tons of questions too about its atmosphere, such as how it is produced and how the magnetic field and solar wind work together.

The two spacecraft will be carried together to Mercury’s orbit along with a component called the Mercury Transfer Model (MTM), which will push the spacecraft out there using solar-electric propulsion. Just before BepiColombo enters orbit, MTM will be jettisoned and the Mercury Polar Orbiter will ensure the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter receives the needed resources to survive until the two spacecraft move into their separate orbits, according to the European Space Agency.

As for why it takes so long to get out there, to save on fuel the mission will swing by Earth, Venus and Mercury to get to the right spot. Once the two spacecraft are ready to go, they’re expected to last a year in orbit — with a potential one-year extension.

Watch the “Blood Moon” Eclipse from Mercury

Yes, it’s another time-lapse of the October 8 lunar eclipse that was observed by skywatchers across half the Earth… except that these images weren’t captured from Earth at all; this was the view from Mercury!

The animation above was constructed from 31 images taken two minutes apart by the MESSENGER spacecraft between 5:18 a.m. and 6:18 a.m. EDT on Oct. 8, 2014.

“From Mercury, the Earth and Moon normally appear as if they were two very bright stars,” said Hari Nair, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which developed and operates the MESSENGER mission for NASA. “During a lunar eclipse, the Moon seems to disappear during its passage through the Earth’s shadow, as shown in the movie.”

According to Nair the images have been zoomed by a factor of two and the Moon’s brightness has been increased by a factor of about 25 to enhance visibility. Captured by MESSENGER’s narrow-angle camera, Earth and the Moon were 0.713 AU (106.6 million km / 66.2 million miles) away from Mercury when the images were acquired.

Want to see some great photos of the eclipse shared by talented photographers around the world? Click here.

The Oct. 8 “Hunter’s Moon” eclipse was the second and last total lunar eclipse of 2014. The next will occur on April 4 of next year… but by that time MESSENGER won’t be around to witness it.

Launched August 3, 2004, MESSENGER entered orbit at Mercury on March 18, 2011. It is currently nearing the end of its missions as well as its its operational life, but we still have several more months of observations to look forward to from around the Solar System’s innermost planet before MESSENGER makes its final pass and ultimately impacts Mercury’s surface in March 2015.

Video credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Source: MESSENGER news release

MESSENGER Completes Second Burn to Maintain Mercury Orbit

A little over a week before NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft fired its rockets to successfully enter orbit around Mars, MESSENGER performed a little burn of its own – the second of four orbit correction maneuvers (OCMs) that will allow it to remain in orbit around Mercury until next March. Although it is closing in on the end of its operational life it’s nice to know we still have a few more months of images and discoveries from MESSENGER to look forward to!

MESSENGER's orientation after the start of orbit correction maneuver 10 (OCM-10). Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington
MESSENGER’s orientation after the start of orbit correction maneuver 10 (OCM-10). Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

The first OCM burn was performed on June 17, raising MESSENGER’s orbit from 115 kilometers (71.4 miles) to 156.4 kilometers (97.2 miles) above the surface of Mercury. That was the ninth OCM of the MESSENGER mission, and at 11:54 a.m. EDT on Sept. 12, 2014, the tenth was performed.

Read more: Mercury’s Ready for Its Close-up, Mr. MESSENGER

According to the mission news article:

At the time of this most recent maneuver, MESSENGER was in an orbit with a closest approach of 24.3 kilometers (15.1 miles) above the surface of Mercury. With a velocity change of 8.57 meters per second (19.17 miles per hour), the spacecraft’s four largest monopropellant thrusters (with a small contribution from four of the 12 smallest monopropellant thrusters) nudged the spacecraft to an orbit with a closest approach altitude of 94 kilometers (58.4 miles). This maneuver also increased the spacecraft’s speed relative to Mercury at the maximum distance from Mercury, adding about 3.2 minutes to the spacecraft’s eight-hour, two-minute orbit period.

OCM-10 lasted for 2 1/4 minutes and added 3.2 minutes to the spacecraft’s 8-hour, 2-minute-long orbit. (Source)

The next two burns will occur on October 24 and January 21.

After its two final successful burns MESSENGER will be out of propellant, making any further OCMs impossible. At the planned end of its mission MESSENGER will impact Mercury’s surface in March of 2015.


Built and operated by The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL), MESSENGER launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on August 3, 2004. It entered orbit around Mercury on March 18, 2011, the first spacecraft ever to do so. Since then it has performed countless observations of our Solar System’s innermost planet and has successfully mapped 100% of its surface. Check out the infographic below showing some of the amazing numbers racked up by MESSENGER since its launch ten years ago, and read more about the MESSENGER mission here.

"MESSENGER by the Numbers" - and infographic by NASA
“MESSENGER by the Numbers” – an infographic by NASA


Mercury’s Hot Flow Revealed by MESSENGER

Our Sun is constantly sending a hot stream of charged atomic particles out into space in all directions. Pouring out from holes in the Sun’s corona, this solar wind flows through the Solar System at speeds of over 400 km/s (that’s 893,000 mph). When it encounters magnetic fields, like those generated by planets, the flow of particles is deflected into a bow shock — but not necessarily in a uniform fashion. Turbulence can occur just like in air flows on Earth, and “space weather” results.

One of the more curious effects is a regional reversal of the flow of solar wind particles. Called a “hot flow anomaly,” or HFA, these energetic phenomena occur almost daily in Earth’s magnetic field, as well as on Jupiter and Saturn, and even on Mars and Venus where the magnetic fields are weak (but there are still planets blocking the stream of charged particles.)

Not to be left out in the cold, Mercury is now known to display HFAs, which have been detected for the first time by the MESSENGER spacecraft.

A NASA news release describes how the HFAs were confirmed:

The first measurement was of magnetic fields that can be used to detect giant electric current sheets that lead to HFAs. The second was of the heating of the charged particles. The scientists then analyzed this information to quantify what kind of turbulence exists in the region, which provided the final smoking gun of an HFA.

“Planets have a bow shock the same way a supersonic jet does,” explains Vadim Uritsky at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “These hot flow anomalies are made of very hot solar wind deflected off the bow shock.”

The different colors in this MESSENGER image of Mercury indicate the chemical, mineralogical, and physical differences between the rocks that make up the planet’s surface.  Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington.
Enhanced-color image of Mercury indicating the chemical and physical differences across its surface.  Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington.

The solar wind is not 100% uniform; it has discontinuities within its own complex magnetic fields. When these shifting fields pile up against a planet’s bow shock they can create turbulence patterns that trap hot plasma, which in turn produces its own magnetic fields. The shockwaves, heat, and energy produced are powerful enough to actually reverse the flow of the solar wind within the HFA bulge.

And the word “hot” is putting it lightly — plasma temperatures in an HFA can reach 10 million degrees.

Read more: “Extreme” Solar Wind Blasts Mercury’s Poles

Mercury may be only a little larger than our Moon but it does possess an internally-generated dipolar magnetic field, unlike the Moon, Venus, and Mars which have only localized or shallow fields. The confirmed presence of HFAs on Mercury indicates that they may be a feature in all planetary bow shocks, regardless of how their magnetic fields — if any — are produced.

The team’s results were published in the February 2014 issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics.


In related news, on June 17 MESSENGER successfully completed the first orbit adjustment maneuver to prepare it for its new — and final — low-altitude campaign, during which it will obtain its highest-resolution images ever of the planet’s surface and perform detailed investigations of its composition and magnetic field. Read more on the MESSENGER site here.

Source: NASA

Mercury’s Ready For Its Close-Up, Mr. MESSENGER

Are you ready for a good close look at Mercury? At an incredible 5 meters per pixel, this is one of the highest-resolution images of Mercury’s surface ever captured. It was acquired on March 15 with the MESSENGER spacecraft’s MDIS (Mercury Dual Imaging System) instrument and shows an 8.3-km (5.2-mile) -wide section of Mercury’s north polar region, speckled with small craters and softly rolling hills.

Because MESSENGER was moving so quickly relative to the targeted area it was imaging, a short exposure time was necessary to avoid blurring. As a result the image appears a bit grainy. See the original map projection here.

Wondering what the next-best image was of Mercury? Find out below:

The previous record for most extreme close-up of Mercury was held by this image:

7 meter/pixel targeted observation of Mercury by the MESSENGER spacecraft
7 meter/pixel targeted observation of Mercury by the MESSENGER spacecraft

It was acquired as a targeted observation by MESSENGER’s Narrow-Angle Camera on April 30, 2012, and has a resolution of 7 meters/pixel. It shows an impact melt-covered area about 11 km (7 miles) across near Gaugin crater.

(Although Mercury’s surface may at first appear strikingly similar to the Moon’s, it’s been known since the Mariner 10 mission that the two worlds are very different at fundamental geologic and compositional levels. Read more on that here.)

Images like these are extremely special; during the first two years of MESSENGER’s mission in orbit around Mercury, over 150,000 images were acquired but only five images had resolutions better than 10 meters per pixel.

Artist's impression of MESSENGER orbiting Mercury
Artist’s impression of MESSENGER orbiting Mercury

On April 20, 2014, MESSENGER completed its 3,000th orbit of Mercury (3,075 to date) and is steadily moving into an even lower-altitude orbit. MESSENGER now comes within less than 200 km (124 miles) of the planet’s surface when it passes over its north pole every eight hours… that’s less than half the altitude of the Space Station!

Orbiting at such a low altitude and so often will allow MESSENGER to examine Mercury’s surface in unprecedented detail. Now that 100% of the planet has been successfully mapped by MESSENGER it can spend its second — and last — extended mission investigating specific scientific targets.

Watch: A Tribute to MESSENGER 

“The final year of MESSENGER’s orbital operations will be an entirely new mission,” said Sean Solomon, Principal Investigator for MESSENGER. “With each orbit, our images, our surface compositional measurements, and our observations of the planet’s magnetic and gravity fields will be higher in resolution than ever before. We will be able to characterize Mercury’s near-surface particle environment for the first time. Mercury has stubbornly held on to many of its secrets, but many will at last be revealed.”

Read more in a recent news release from the MESSENGER team here.

Want to explore a high-res map of Mercury and see where MESSENGER is right now? Click here.

Image credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington