January 10, 2008 / 9:06 PM / 10 years ago

NASA probe to fly past little, sun-baked Mercury

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A NASA probe next week will become the first spacecraft in 33 years to fly by Mercury, a sojourn scientists hope will unlock the secrets of the small sun-baked planet.

File photo showing the planet Mercury is seen from Mariner 10's first image of Mercury acquired on March 24, 1974. REUTERS/Nasa-Jpl/File

NASA’s car-sized MESSENGER spacecraft is scheduled to zip about 124 miles above the cratered, rocky surface of the closest planet to the sun on Monday, part of a mission designed to place it into orbit around Mercury in 2011.

“I think we’re in for some big surprises,” Faith Vilas, one of the scientists involved in the mission, told reporters during a conference call on Thursday.

“You know that we can’t get cocky about this and say, ‘Oh, it’s going to look like this.’ Every solar system body looks very different from every other solar system body,” she added.

MESSENGER is expected to get the first spacecraft measurements of the mineral and chemical makeup of Mercury’s surface, and to also retrieve key data about the planet’s internal structure including its core.

The probe will also study Mercury’s global magnetic field, and scientists also hope the mission will add to the understanding of the planet’s gravity field.

MESSENGER’s instruments will collect more than 1,200 images and make other observations during this initial fly-by. It will be the first up-close measurements since the Mariner 10 spacecraft’s third and final fly-by in 1975.

MESSENGER, which stands for Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging, was launched in 2004. The probe has meandered through the inner solar system on the way to Mercury, already having flown past Earth once and Venus twice.

THE OTHER SIDE

Scientists said MESSENGER is expected to retrieve far more data about Mercury than did Mariner 10, which surveyed only one hemisphere of the planet. During next week’s fly-by, scientists will begin to collect images of the other hemisphere.

“Mercury really has been long ignored — too long,” NASA’s planetary science chief James Green said. “With MESSENGER, we believe that many of Mercury’s secrets will now be revealed.”

With Pluto demoted from planetary status, Mercury is now recognized as the smallest planet in the solar system. Its diameter is about 3,000 miles, about a third the size of Earth and only a bit larger than our moon. Mercury’s surface is a mix of craters, plains and long, winding cliffs.

The planet’s average distance from the sun is 36 million miles, about two-thirds closer than the Earth. It orbits the sun once every 88 Earth days, or about a quarter of an Earth year.

The spacecraft is due to make its closest approach to Mercury at 2:04 p.m. EST on Monday (1904 GMT).

Mercury, along with Venus, Earth and Mars, are the solar system’s family of four rocky inner planets.

“But Mercury, as a family member, is a real oddball,” said Sean Solomon of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, the mission’s principal scientific investigator.

He cited its extreme density and wide surface temperature swings from day to night due to its proximity to the sun.

Surprisingly considering its proximity to the sun, there may be water ice on the permanently shadowed crater floors at Mercury’s poles, scientists think. A huge iron core is believed to make up more than 60 percent of Mercury’s total mass.

MESSENGER is due to make three passes of Mercury — next week, this coming October and again in September 2009 — before finally starting a yearlong orbit during a fourth encounter in March 2011. The mission also includes fly-bys of Earth and Venus as the probe positions itself for orbiting Mercury.

The mission is expected to cost about $446 million.

Editing by Maggie Fox and Eric Walsh

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