Regular Updates: The Flight of MESSENGER to Mercury through Orbital Insertion, March 18, 2011

 Posted by DrJeff on October 4th, 2009

 Copyright 2009  |  About this blog


Click Here to Skip the Overview of this Updates Page and Jump Directly to Updates Archive Below



Flyby 3 may be over, but MESSENGER’s mission continues. Bookmark this page for MESSENGER updates. Also note you can always access this page from the Teachable Moments in the News Quick Links box in the upper right column of this Blog, which includes the date of the latest update.

Teachers—place the mission in the greater context of human exploration, and exploration of the Solar System, using this Blog’s MESSENGER Ideas for Lessons in the Classroom, and Educational Resources page.



This post is a Teachable Moment in the News.


Photo Caption (click on image for zoom): Image taken September 29, 2009, by the MESSENGER spacecraft’s Narrow Angle Camera,15,400 km (9,600 miles) above the planet’s surface. The double-ring impact basin is approximately 100 miles (160 km) in diameter, with another large impact crater on its south-southwestern side. The image and caption was prepared by MESSENGER Educator Fellows Christina Dorr (Hilliard City School District, Hilliard, OH) and Julie Taylor (Adelanto School District, Adelanto, CA), at the MESSENGER Science Operations Center.



The September 2009 MESSENGER Special Post at Blog on the Universe, with live Web 2.0 coverage of the spacecraft’s third flyby of Mercury on September 29, generated significant interest in the NASA MESSENGER mission. Teachers and their classes were following along and posing questions to the six Voices of Mission Control via Twitter and email. I’ve created this page to provide ongoing MESSENGER mission updates through the date of orbital insertion on March 18, 2011.


Below you will find the Updates Archive. Also below are Blue Titled sections that provide an overview of the tense time in Mission Control when the signal from the spacecraft was unexpectedly lost during close approach on September 29, and a Twitter archive for the Voices of Mission Control—captured live during the flyby—so you can relive the experience.



Updates Archive


April 22, 2010: Blog on the Universe Post

Hero Engineers and Scientists Preparing for MESSENGER Spacecraft Orbit of Mercury



January 28, 2010: MESSENGER Searches for Vulcanoids

The MESSENGER spacecraft started the year 2010 by making its closest approach to the Sun on its current orbit on January 18. At that time, MESSENGER was just 0.308 AU (astronomical units; the average distance from the Earth to the Sun, which is about 150 million kilometers or 93 million miles) from the Sun. The mission team used the opportunity to conduct a survey for vulcanoids—asteroid-like objects that could possibly exist between the Sun and the orbit of Mercury—by taking four sets of 64 long-exposure images by the Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS) instrument. No vulcanoids have been found yet, but the analysis of the new images continues.


Learn more about the MDIS instrument.


Read an archived NASA news story from 2002 discussing the hunt for vulcanoids.

New image releases on the MESSENGER Web site during January:

Honoring Haitian Painter Benoit and American Photographer Lange
Extensive smooth Plains on Mercury


December 23, 2009: MESSENGER Highlights in 2009

The MESSENGER team looks back on 2009 this week by releasing a collage of images highlighting some of the most interesting new findings about Mercury during the last 12 months. While celebrating the achievements of the past year ­ including the final flyby of Mercury on September 29 ­ the team is also looking ahead to 2010. Even though there is no planetary flyby in store next year, the MESSENGER team will be busy analyzing previously collected data and preparing for the orbital phase of the mission to begin in 2011. Many thanks to the MESSENGER team for a memorable year, and best of luck for 2010!


See the 2009 Collage of Images



December 18, 2009: New Global Mosaic of Mercury

During the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, California, the MESSENGER science team released a new global mosaic of Mercury to the public. The new map, created by the MESSENGER team in collaboration with cartographic experts from the U.S. Geological Survey, incorporates images from MESSENGER’s three flybys of the planet, as well as Mariner 10’s observations from the 1970s. Combined, the images cover 97.72% of the surface area of Mercury. The new map will be a valuable tool in planning observations for the orbital phase of the mission, starting in March 2011, since it allows the science team to pinpoint features on the surface for closer study.


For more information on the creation of the new global map of Mercury, see THIS MESSENGER press release.


The map is available for download on the USGS Map-a-Planet web site:  or at the MESSENGER Web site.



December 10, 2009

Two new images released

The Sun Sets on Rembrandt

A Southern Horizon as Seen during Mercury Flyby 3



November 25, 2009: Final Deep Space Maneuver

MESSENGER performed its fifth and final deep-space maneuver on Tuesday. The spacecraft fired its engine for 3.3 minutes to achieve the velocity change necessary to place it on course to go into orbit around Mercury in March 2011. At the time of the maneuver, MESSENGER was 143 million miles (230 million km) from the Earth, on the far side of the Sun. At this distance, it takes 12 minutes and 49 seconds for the radio signals to reach ground control. Data sent back from the spacecraft indicates the maneuver was performed extremely accurately, and the spacecraft is on target to its meeting with Mercury in 16 months. To see where MESSENGER is right now, visit this LINK.


New image released this week: A Long Scarp Revisited



November 17, 2009: Time Magazine—MESSENGER One of 50 Best Inventions of 2009

Time magazine has named the MESSENGER spacecraft as one of the best 50 inventions of 2009. The magazine credits the technical challenges facing a spacecraft flying to a planet so close to the Sun as the reason for the recognition, and the results from the third flyby of Mercury in September certainly demonstrate how well the spacecraft is operating in the hazardous environment.


Read the MESSENGER press release about the award.

Here is Time Magazine’s list of best inventions of 2009 (with MESSENGER at #11).


A new image taken during the flyby was released today: a comparison between a true color image and an enhanced color image of the planet. Enhanced color images allow scientists to examine different terrains better and in this manner help uncover the geologic history of the planet.


November 3, 2009: NASA Media Teleconference on MESSENGER Findings

from Third Flyby, and New Images

MESSENGER mission team held a NASA media teleconference today to discuss scientific findings from the spacecraft¹s third and final flyby of Mercury on September 29. Among the topics covered were: images of previously unseen parts of the planet; a region with a bright area surrounding an irregular depression, suspected to be volcanic in origin; a double-ring impact basin that may contain the youngest volcanic material on Mercury found so far; measurements of how Mercury¹s very thin atmosphere, called the exosphere, varies with the planet’s distance from the Sun; and information on the abundances of iron and titanium in Mercury’s surface materials.


Here is the press release about the new science results.


Images and other multimedia resources from the teleconference are available HERE.


New Mercury images from the teleconference:

A Color View of the Solar System’s Innermost Planet

Mercury Flyby 3 Reveals a Highly Diminished Sodium Tail

Evidence of Volcanic Activity on Mercury

Mercury’s Surface Has More Iron + Titanium Than Previously Thought



October 30, 2009: Readying for Solar Conjunction, and New Images

of Mercury from a Distance

MESSENGER is rapidly moving away from Mercury after its third flyby of the planet a month ago. It is now preparing for an upcoming solar conjunction on November 3-17, when the spacecraft will be on the other side of the Sun as seen from the Earth, and no communications with ground control are possible. To minimize the chances of any mishaps during this time, all instruments have been turned off except for the gamma-ray spectrometer, which has to stay in its maintenance mode to keep its cooler at a safe temperature. Before being turned off, MESSENGER¹s dual imaging camera snapped pictures of Mercury from a distance; the images were released on the MESSENGER Web site this week.


LINK: Mercury from Nearly Two Million Miles



October 20, 2009: NEW Podcast; Results of Third Flyby Presented at 2009 Geological Society of America Meeting

During MESSENGER’s third flyby of Mercury, Bob Hirshon (American Association for the Advancement of Science) recorded reports on the events at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. These reports include interviews with the MESSENGER team during the flyby, live reaction to the unexpected loss of the spacecraft’s signal prior to the closest approach, and discussion of the situation once the signal was restored and the spacecraft had been confirmed to be operating nominally. You can now experience the nail-biting moments as if you were right there at the Mission Operations Center by downloading Bob’s recording as a podcast available at the 365 Days of Astronomy Podcasts Web site, one of the programs celebrating the International Year of Astronomy.


MESSENGER science team members are presenting the first results from the spacecraft’s third flyby of Mercury at the 2009 Geological Society of America Annual Meeting in Portland, Oregon. Some of the topics discussed in the meeting are featured in new image releases on the MESSENGER web site and include tectonic activity of impact basins, as shown in the image: The Rim of Rembrandt and Neighboring Scarps and volcanism, as showcased by large expanses of smooth plains and craters flooded with lava in the image Flooding Mercury’s Surface. The full list of papers presented at the meeting can be found HERE.


Other new image releases at the MESSENGER web site include a high-resolution mosaic of Mercury taken during the spacecraft’s approach of the planet on September 29: Approach Mosaic from Mercury Flyby 3 and a picture showcasing Mercury¹s complex geologic history: Mercury’s Geology: A Story with Many Chapters.



October 17, 2009: MESSENGER’s October 21 Trajectory Correction Canceled

To be able to go into orbit around Mercury in 2011, MESSENGER is taking a complicated route to its target planet. In addition to six planetary flybys, the spacecraft also performs five deep space maneuvers, during which it fires the main engines to change its orbit around the Sun. In between these main events, smaller trajectory correction maneuvers can be performed to tweak the spacecraft’s path slightly as necessary to make sure the spacecraft remains on target. The next trajectory correction maneuver was scheduled to take place on October 21, but because MESSENGER performed its third flyby of Mercury so accurately, the mission team has decided that no adjustment to the spacecraft’s trajectory is needed before the mission’s final deep space maneuver on November 24, 2009. Here’s a Diagram that provides an understanding of MESSENGER’s roller-coaster journey to Mercury.



October 16, 2009: New images from MESSENGER’s September 29 flyby released by APL (release date: October 7 through 14, 2009.)

Tip of the Crescent

Look Back – Look Ahead

Evidence of Volcanism on Mercury: It’s the Pits

It’s Just a Phase that Mercury’s Going Through


October 9, 2009: Peter Bedini, the MESSENGER Project MANAGER at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, sent out a personal message to the entire MESSENGER Team. I wanted to share it with all of you, and got Peter’s permission:

Before too much time passes, I want to offer the entire MESSENGER team sincerest thanks for the substantial amount of hard work that went into the preparations for last week’s encounter with Mercury. That flyby completes a set of three such encounters with our target planet, and will be the last opportunity to study Mercury close-up until we meet it again for orbit insertion in a year and a half.

As you all are well aware, the gravity assist was extremely accurate once again, with the spacecraft this time passing within 1.25 miles of the targeted aim-point, and within 1200 feet or so of the desired altitude. MESSENGER passed within 142 miles of the planet’s surface at a relative speed of about 12,000 mph and altered its trajectory as needed to enter orbit about Mercury in March 2011. Although the science observation campaign was interrupted by a nervous fault protection system, all subsystems behaved nominally throughout the encounter, and the spacecraft remains safe and healthy.

The science data are being analyzed and will be studied for some time, but already it is known that the observations made on approach were highly successful. Measurements of the exosphere and magnetosphere will add to our understanding of those aspects of Mercury, and our camera system imaged about 6% of the surface never before revealed.

I learned this morning that one of our science products has grabbed the attention of those at the very highest levels of our government. Members of our team created a stereo mosaic of a portion of Mercury by overlaying images taken during the second encounter last year with those taken from a slightly different angle last week. When viewed through 3-D glasses, the stereo effect greatly enhances the topography of the planet. A copy of this 3-D mosaic was brought by our Program Scientist, Marilyn Lindstrom, to NASA HQ last week, and yesterday afternoon the NASA Administrator himself presented it – along with pairs of 3-D glasses – to representatives of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. It is a testament to the high quality of the work each of you has contributed to MESSENGER that the head of NASA saw fit to use this product to represent the great things that NASA can do. There is much yet to do to prepare properly for the prime phase of the mission, but please take time to remind yourselves that what you’re doing is really cool, that you’re doing it extremely well, and that we’re not the only ones who think so.

Sincerely, Peter

Peter D. Bedini, MESSENGER Project Manager

Peter also wanted me to pass along an October 8, 2009 Washington Post article about a Star Party on the White House lawn. You might recognize the photo of Mercury on one of the flags.



October 7, 2009:

Today’s Astronomy Picture of the Day features a MESSENGER third flyby image of a Double Ringed Basin on Mercury. APOD (as it’s called by its fans) always includes a description of the daily image with links to other websites for a deeper look at the subject matter. The MESSENGER image description includes links for other related geologic features and a relevant movie on volcanic flow.

IMPORTANT POINT: the APOD description can be interpreted to imply that the inner ring may have been caused by a volcanic flow as a subsequent event unrelated to the initial impact. The expert opinions, however, are that the inner ring formed at the same time as the outer ring.


The link:



October 6, 2009: Some of the images taken by MESSENGER during its third flyby of Mercury are of the same areas photographed during the second flyby, but viewed from a slightly different angle. Combining the two sets of images creates a stereo effect that helps visualize the topography of the surface. E.g., viewing the stereo image of a portion of the 715 km (444 mile) wide Rembrandt basin through 3D glasses makes the effects of tectonism, impact cratering, and volcanism inside the basin more apparent.

I don’t know how many folks have a cheapy cardboard pair of 3D glasses with the left eye covered with red plastic and the right eye covered with blue, but that’s what you need to see the effect. At the science team briefing at the Science Operations Center we all got a pair of these glasses, and I just looked at the image with them on (link below). Very cool!!  By the way, at the meeting we all had our glasses on, and a famous Smithsonian geologist walked into the room late and said “Hey this looks like some bad horror film.” From the audience someone shouted “Hey! You’re looking at the audience!”

The link to the image:


October 5, 2009: One of the big surprises from MESSENGER¹s three flybys of Mercury has been the revelation of the planet¹s complicated geologic history. A great example is the two neighboring craters visible in a new image taken during last week¹s flyby. The inside of one of the craters has a complex structure, while the other appears to have been filled nearly to its rim with smooth, probably volcanic, material. A complicated geologic past is needed to explain how two craters of roughly the same size and right next to each other look so different.


The link to the image:



October 2, 2009: One of the most important science goals of MESSENGER¹s third flyby of Mercury was to obtain images of the previously unseen parts of the surface. The newly imaged terrain bridges the gap between areas imaged during the previous flybys by MESSENGER in 2008 and Mariner 10 in 1974-75. We now have almost complete coverage of the surface, and only the polar regions remain unseen. The global map of Mercury will be valuable in planning MESSENGER¹s orbital operations, which will begin in 18 months.


Here’s the link to the newly released global map of Mercury:


Other images release October 2:

Young and Wrinkled

A Terminator Shot

Capturing Mercury through MESSENGER’s Dual Cameras



October 2, 2009: Science in Pictures at the New York Times (pictures 1 and 2). Picture 2 was selected by MESSENGER Fellows Christina Dorr and Julie Taylor for release to the public, and they wrote the draft caption.



October 1, 2009: A Paw Print on Mercury!


Other images released October 1:

Crater Ejecta and Chains of Secondary Impacts

Seeing Double?

Evening Shadows

A Bright Spot in the Latest Imaging



September 30, 2009: During flyby 3, MESSENGER imaged another 5% of Mercury’s surface that has never been seen. MESSENGER’s three flybys, and the flybys of Mariner 10 in 1974-75. have now imaged 90% of the planet. Only the polar regions remain to be revealed. The newly imaged portion of Mercury on September 29, 2009:


Other images released September 30:

A Newly Pictured Pit-Floor Crater

A Newly Imaged Basin

A High-resolution Look over Mercury’s Northern Horizon

MESSENGER Sees the Previously Unseen!



September 23 – October 1 2009: Select Media Coverage of Flyby 3, Oct 1, Mercury’s bright spot gets an up-close photo, Oct 1, Mercury MESSENGER, fault foxes final fly-by

Baltimore Sun, Oct 1, Mercury probe shuts down instruments during flyby

Universe Today, Oct 1, More New Looks at Mercury from MESSENGER

Universe Today, Sept 30, MESSENGER Went into Safe Mode Approaching Mercury

The New York Times, Sept 28, MESSENGER Spacecraft to Photograph Mercury

Science Daily, Sept 28, MESSENGER Spacecraft Prepares For Final Pass by Mercury

Bad Astronomy Blog at Discover, Sept 27, MESSENGER: Three days out from Mercury

USA Today, Sept 25, Mercury ready for a rare close-up

UPI,Sept 24, NASA Mercury probe to scan mineral ores


NASA Press Release, September 23, 2009, MESSENGER Spacecraft Prepares For Final Pass By Mercury



Nail Biting in the Mission Operations Center

MESSENGER Flyby 3 Summary

The MESSENGER spacecraft’s 3rd flyby of Mercury took place 5:55 pm EDT, September 29, 2009, passing within 142 miles of the surface. The gravitational assist from Mercurysuccessfully modified the spacecraft’s trajectory to enable orbital insertion on March 18, 2011.

14 minutes before Close Approach, the spacecraft passed onto the dark side of Mercury, and switched from solar power to onboard batteries. The event was incorrectly interpreted as a problem by the spacecraft’s autonomous system that checks the health of all spacecraft systems 50 times each second. At 6 minutes before close approach, the autonomous system placed the spacecraft into Safe Mode, which stowed the science instrument payload, and shut down science operations already in progress. By then, nearly 50% of the science to be conducted 4 days to either side of close approach had been achieved.

Back on Earth, some 70 million miles away, all that was known was signal was inexplicably lost 6 minutes before close approach, and 12 minutes later the spacecraft was to go behind Mercury realtive to Earth, causing a forced communications blackout for 51 minutes. As one mission controller told me in the hallway, “we all got a pit in our stomachs.”

Signal was reacquired after the end of the blackout period, but controllers determined that the spacecraft was in safe mode, rather than normal mode. Into the evening and early morning hours at the Mission Operations Center, in Columbia, Maryland, what had happened near close approach began to unfold.

By mid-day September 30, mission controllers knew that the autonomous system safed the spacecraft as a result of the switch to battery power, they put the spacecraft back into normal mode, and all the data acquired before close approach was received on Earth. Planetary scientists at the Science Operations Center began looking at the data, and the MESSENGER Fellows were selecting and captioning images for release later that day (see September 30 update in the Updates Archive below.)

Twitter Archive of Flyby 3, September 29, 2009: Relive the Experience!

MESSENGER’s third flyby of Mercury was covered live via Web 2.0 from mission control at the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Columbia, Maryland. SixVoices of Mission Control—MESSENGER Educator Fellows and MESSENGER Education Team members—provided the play-by-play and answered questions via Twitter for the Sept 29 flyby and the two days that followed when the preliminary science results were being presented. With the Twitter archives below, you can relive the experience—including the dramatic loss of signal 6 minutes before close approach, and 12 minutes before the start of the 51 minute communications blackout.

The Twitter archives below reflect the Schedule of Live Events September 28 through October 1, 2009 :

The Voice of the MESSENGER Spacecraft (Heather Weir)


Gene Gordon

Christina Dorr

Annette Iwamoto

Sally Jensen

Julie Taylor

Jeff Goldstein, (doctorjeff)



Photo Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

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