The BBC warms up to NASA’s latest mission, which is about to get a close look at the planet Mercury:
Messenger has had to use six planetary flybys – one of Earth, two of Venus and three of Mercury itself – to manage its speed as it ran in closer to the Sun and its deep gravity well.
The strategy devised by scientists and engineers is to have Messenger gather data with its seven instruments during the close approaches (some 200km from the surface) and then return that information to Earth when the probe is cooling off at maximum separation from the planet (up to 15,000km from the surface).
Mercury is often dismissed as a boring, featureless world that offers little to excite those who observe it, but planetary scientists who know it well beg to differ. It is a place of extraordinary extremes.
Mercury’s proximity to the Sun means exposed equator surfaces can reach more than 600C; and yet there may be water-ice at the poles in craters that are in permanent shadow.
Images at the link.