Messenger approaching first Mercury flyby

On January 14, NASA’s Messenger spacecraft will make the first flyby of Mercury since Mariner 10 made its third and final flyby of the innermost planet in 1975.

And the best is yet to come. After a series of three flybys, Messenger will enter into orbit around Mercury on March 18, 2011.

An article in the January 5 issue of New Scientist lists a number of interesting questions that the first flyby and subsequent aspects of the mission may address.

These include the planet’s unusually large density; its small but still surprising magnetic field; the 56% of its surface not imaged by Mariner 10; whether or not it has polar icecaps; why its orbit is highly eccentric and more tilted out of the plane of the ecliptic (7 degrees) than any other major planet; and even a test of Einstein’s General Relativity.

The mission will no doubt reveal many surprises and reveal details about the formation of this planet and planetary systems in general.

For a comprehensive overview of the Messenger mission, click here.

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