More From Mercury


At The Planetary Society‘s web site, Emily Lakdawalla continues to do an incredible job of keeping us informed about the latest results from various NASA missions. One of them, the Messenger Mission to Mercury, is interesting to me because it is a mission on-going out of the Applied Physics Lab in Laurel MD, where I had the privilege of working on New Horizons. I’m acquainted with a few of the principals.

It was only a fly-by, the first of three before Messenger settles into orbit around the small planet. But the results are stunning, and the science is already coming out. You can see from the image (and especially from the enlarged view available from the link above) that Mercury is not as simple as the Mariner 10 mission of the ’70s led us to believe. The false color image (which sort of kind of reveals what we would see if our eyes were more sensitive to the infrared portions of the spectrum) has the potential to show parts of Mercury that are differentiated by composition, age, weathering (Weathering? In Space? Most certainly!) and even by the original circumstances of birth.

And it’s only a brief fly-by. Imagine what the data will contain when Messenger is in orbit!

I thought I was in a golden age of astronomy when I was a student, way back when. Not only had man just recently set foot on the moon (real moon-stuff in our hands to study!), but Mariner had set back pictures of Mercury, Pioneer 2 was about to orbit Venus, Pioneer 10 and 11 were heading out to Jupiter and Saturn, and Voyager was getting ready for launch. I was fortunate enoug to hear Carl Sagan give his signature lecture on the Mars Viking Missions.

It wasn’t just planetary astronomy that was heating up. The discovery of Gamma Ray Bursters had just graduated from closely guarded secret to mysterious natural phenominon. Steven Hawking was starting to turn cosmology inside out.

All this new information was telling us – shouting at us – that everything we thought we knew before about space was wrong. Guess what. The same thing has been happening for about the last 15 years, since Hubble was launched. The incredible data sets, distributed world wide (and freely) within hours of being collected are shouting at us again. May it be ever so.

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