MESSENGER blasts off to Mercury
Flawless launch starts probe on its voyage to the Solar System's innermost planet.
The MESSENGER spacecraft, NASA's first mission to the planet Mercury in more than 30 years, launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida this morning.
A Boeing Delta II rocket blasted the probe into the night sky at 0616 GMT in a flawless lift-off. Just minutes later, MESSENGER was released from the rocket's payload bay to fend for itself. According to reports from mission scientists, the craft has already deployed its solar panels and is functioning perfectly.
Bad weather generated by the tropical storm Alex had delayed MESSENGER's launch by one day.
NASA's only previous Mercury mission was Mariner 10, which photographed less than half of the planet's surface during three flybys in 1974 and 1975. MESSENGER will spend about a year in orbit around Mercury, giving scientists their most detailed ever information about the closest planet to the Sun.
Researchers also hope that the mission will lead to insights about how our planetary system formed. "In a few years, we will see things that no human has ever seen and know infinitely more about the formation of the Solar System than we know today," says Michael Griffin, head of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, where the craft was designed and built.
The probe, which cost $426 million, will also investigate the planet's extremely thin atmosphere and possible patches of water ice nestling in the shadowy craters at the planet's poles.
MESSENGER is now in orbit around the Sun, and will swing past Earth again for a gravity boost in August 2005. As it spirals ever closer to Mercury the craft will fly past Venus twice, in October 2006 and June 2007. It will arrive in orbit around Mercury in March 2011.