, Volume 131, Issue 1-4, pp 3-39
Date: 05 Oct 2007

MESSENGER Mission Overview

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Abstract

The MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft, launched on August 3, 2004, is nearing the halfway point on its voyage to become the first probe to orbit the planet Mercury. The mission, spacecraft, and payload are designed to answer six fundamental questions regarding the innermost planet: (1) What planetary formational processes led to Mercury’s high ratio of metal to silicate? (2) What is the geological history of Mercury? (3) What are the nature and origin of Mercury’s magnetic field? (4) What are the structure and state of Mercury’s core? (5) What are the radar-reflective materials at Mercury’s poles? (6) What are the important volatile species and their sources and sinks near Mercury? The mission has focused to date on commissioning the spacecraft and science payload as well as planning for flyby and orbital operations. The second Venus flyby (June 2007) will complete final rehearsals for the Mercury flyby operations in January and October 2008 and September 2009. Those flybys will provide opportunities to image the hemisphere of the planet not seen by Mariner 10, obtain high-resolution spectral observations with which to map surface mineralogy and assay the exosphere, and carry out an exploration of the magnetic field and energetic particle distribution in the near-Mercury environment. The orbital phase, beginning on March 18, 2011, is a one-year-long, near-polar-orbital observational campaign that will address all mission goals. The orbital phase will complete global imaging, yield detailed surface compositional and topographic data over the northern hemisphere, determine the geometry of Mercury’s internal magnetic field and magnetosphere, ascertain the radius and physical state of Mercury’s outer core, assess the nature of Mercury’s polar deposits, and inventory exospheric neutrals and magnetospheric charged particle species over a range of dynamic conditions. Answering the questions that have guided the MESSENGER mission will expand our understanding of the formation and evolution of the terrestrial planets as a family.