Opinion: Ticket pic of the week: First photo from Mercury orbit -- long time, never seen

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Yes, it’s true the U.S. manned space program is fizzling out like a wet bottle rocket. When the space shuttle flies the last time this year, we’ll begin renting seats in Russian space capsules. Which means no more tall American astronauts.

However, NASA’s generally obedient robot equipment continues to wander around space visiting and photographing amazing places.


On St. Patrick’s Day, NASA’s Messenger satellite went into orbit around Mercury, our solar system’s innermost planet, named for the Greek god of overnight flower delivery.

Messenger left Earth nearly seven years ago, before John Kerry said he’d been.... favor of something before he said he was against it. The $446-million Messenger’s launch was so long ago that Illinois state senator Barack Obama hadn’t even promised to close Guantanamo by 2010. If you think it’s tough to lay out a 14-day family vacation itinerary to Glacier National Park for July, consider this: Messenger’s minders had to plot an accurate itinerary of about 5 billion miles, 15 orbits around the Sun at a top speed of 24 miles per second.

And they had to do it with enough accuracy for a close encounter with Mercury on the right day six-plus years hence, but at a sufficiently slow speed to let the planet’s thin atmosphere capture it after a perfectly-timed entry maneuver. If Satellite A leaves Earth in August of 2004 heading up at speeds of 24 miles per second and Train B leaves.....

In return for all those calculations, the satellite’s human caregivers got to name it: MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging satellite -- Messenger.

At its closest, Mercury is only 29 million miles from the sun, which explains the planet’s recommended SPF 9,000. Earth is about three times farther out.

Think 800 degrees Fahrenheit on Mercury’s sunny side and minus-280 on the North Dakota side. And those temperatures last a good while; a Mercury ‘day’ is 59 Earth days long. And one of its ‘annual’ solar orbits lasts only around 88 Earth days.

As you may have guessed, the photo above shows Mercury’s never-before photographed south pole, as seen from only 124 miles away. (The white spot is actually several times larger than a Wal-Mart parking lot, if you can imagine anything so immense.) One surprise so far for scientists is the size of craters created by debris falling back from space rocks’ initial impact -- at greater velocities than expected.

Another surprise is how blasé many people have become over such amazing ongoing feats of engineering, while lawyerly D.C. pols with substantial congressional majorities can’t even craft a federal budget before the current fiscal year began seven months ago.

For a little more Mercury Messenger info, check out this brief video:


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-- Andrew Malcolm

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