MESSENGER Mission Design and Navigation
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Nearly three decades after the Mariner 10 spacecraft’s third and final targeted Mercury flyby, the 3 August 2004 launch of the MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) spacecraft began a new phase of exploration of the closest planet to our Sun. In order to ensure that the spacecraft had sufficient time for pre-launch testing, the NASA Discovery Program mission to orbit Mercury experienced launch delays that required utilization of the most complex of three possible mission profiles in 2004. During the 7.6-year mission, the spacecraft’s trajectory will include six planetary flybys (including three of Mercury between January 2008 and September 2009), dozens of trajectory-correction maneuvers (TCMs), and a year in orbit around Mercury. Members of the mission design and navigation teams optimize the spacecraft’s trajectory, specify TCM requirements, and predict and reconstruct the spacecraft’s orbit. These primary mission design and navigation responsibilities are closely coordinated with spacecraft design limitations, operational constraints, availability of ground-based tracking stations, and science objectives. A few days after the spacecraft enters Mercury orbit in mid-March 2011, the orbit will have an 80° inclination relative to Mercury’s equator, a 200-km minimum altitude over 60°N latitude, and a 12-hour period. In order to accommodate science goals that require long durations during Mercury orbit without trajectory adjustments, pairs of orbit-correction maneuvers are scheduled every 88 days (once per Mercury year).
KeywordsGravity assist MESSENGER Mercury Mission design Navigation
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