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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 August, 2004, 06:17 GMT 07:17 UK
Space probe blasts off to Mercury
Mercury Messenger launch, AFP

The Mercury Messenger probe has launched successfully on its mission to carry out a detailed investigation of the first planet from the Sun.

The spacecraft blasted off just before 0616 GMT on Tuesday from Cape Canaveral in Florida, US, aboard a Boeing Delta 2 rocket for a seven-year journey.

It is the first US mission to Mercury for more than 30 years.

After arriving in 2011, the probe will orbit Mercury for a year to explore its atmosphere, composition and structure.

A scheduled lift-off on Monday had to be scrubbed due to thick clouds. The poor weather is understood to have been due to residual effects of tropical storm Alex.

During its 7.9bn km voyage it will also make one flyby of Earth, two of Venus and three of Mercury before slipping into orbit around the Solar System's innermost planet.

The probe will gather information on the composition and structure of Mercury's crust, its geological history, polar regions, atmosphere and magnetic environment as well as the make-up of its core.

Mercurial world

Scientists hope the $427m mission will help solve some of the mysteries surrounding this enigmatic world.

Mercury is probably the least explored of the so-called rocky planets that also include Venus, Earth and Mars.

In 1973, Nasa launched the Mariner 10 spacecraft which flew by the planet three times, but was only able to photograph 45% of its surface.

Astronomers already know that Mercury - which has a comparable density to Earth even though it is much smaller - is about two-thirds iron. But why it became so much richer in this metal than the other inner planets is unknown.

The probe will travel 7.9 billion km to Mercury, reaching the planet in 2011

Some scientists think the planet may once have been rocky but lost its exterior, perhaps through exposure to solar winds or through some giant impact.

Sean Solomon, principal scientist for the mission, said he also wanted to understand why the Solar System's inner planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars) are so different from its outer planets like Jupiter and Saturn.

For this it was important "to study the most extreme of those outcomes, and that's Mercury," Dr Solomon explained.

Mercury is also the only inner planet besides Earth with a global magnetic field. Scientists hope to learn how this formed.

Fire and ice

One of the most intriguing mysteries about Mercury, however, is the apparent presence of ice on its surface.

On a planet where surface temperatures at the equator can reach 450C (about 840F), any ice must stay out of the Sun, inside the shadowy interior of craters at the poles.

Radio telescopes on Earth have detected the signature of ice in craters at some shaded, high latitude regions, where the temperature could remain below -184C (-300F).

But some scientists caution that the "ice" could actually be super-frozen silica or something else.

THE PLANET MERCURY
Image of Mercury from Mariner 10, Nasa
Closest planet to the Sun
Diameter: 4,800KM
Mercurian year: 88 days
Has global magnetic field
Mercury Messenger carries seven scientific instruments to characterise the properties of its target planet. It will operate at room temperature behind a screen of heat-resistant ceramic fabric.

The 1.2-tonne spacecraft also carries a heat radiation system and will pass only briefly over the hottest regions of the planet, so limiting exposure to the intense heat bouncing back from Mercury's broiling surface.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's David Shukman
"The Mercury Messenger is especially designed for the uniquely hostile environment it is heading for"



SEE ALSO:
Q&A: Mercury space probe
02 Aug 04  |  Science/Nature
Nasa set to revisit Mercury
16 Jul 04  |  Science/Nature
Mercury passes across Sun
07 May 03  |  Science/Nature
Spacecraft to go back to Mercury
11 Jun 01  |  Science/Nature


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