It’s always good to get a little change of perspective, and with this image we achieve just that: it’s a view of Mercury’s north pole projected as it might be seen from above a slightly more southerly latitude. Thanks to the MESSENGER spacecraft, with which this image was originally acquired, as well as the Arecibo Observatory here on Earth, scientists now know that these polar craters contain large deposits of water ice – which may seem surprising on an airless and searing-hot planet located so close to the Sun but not when you realize that the interiors of these craters never actually receive sunlight.
The locations of ice deposits are shown in the image in yellow. See below for a full-sized version.
The five largest ice-filled craters in this view are (from front to back) the 112-km-wide Prokofiev and the smaller Kandinsky, Tolkien, Tryggvadottir, and Chesterton craters. A mosaic of many images acquired by MESSENGER’s Mercury Dual Imaging Sustem (MDIS) instrument during its time in orbit, you would never actually see a view of the planet’s pole illuminated like this in real life but orienting it this way helps put things into…well, perspective.
Radar-bright regions in Mercury’s polar craters have been known about since 1992 when they were first imaged from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Located in areas of permanent shadow where sunlight never reaches (due to the fact that Mercury’s axial tilt is a mere 2.11º, unlike Earth’s much more pronounced 23.4º slant) they have since been confirmed by MESSENGER observations to contain frozen water and other volatile materials.
Similarly-shadowed craters on our Moon’s south pole have also been found to contain water ice, although those deposits appear different in composition, texture, and age. It’s suspected that some of Mercury’s frozen materials may have been delivered later than those found on the Moon, or are being restored via an ongoing process. Read more about these findings here.
In orbit around Mercury since 2011, MESSENGER is now nearing the end of its operational life. Engineers have figured out a way to extend its fuel use for an additional month, possibly delaying its inevitable descent until April, but even if this maneuver goes as planned the spacecraft will be meeting Mercury’s surface very soon.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
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.
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.