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Humbling Views of Earth from Distant Spacecraft

The solar system just got a bit smaller thanks to two awe-inspiring portraits of Earth and the moon taken from nearly the opposite sides of the solar system. On Friday July 19th, Earth got a great two for one deal. Both NASA’s Cassini spacecraft at Saturn, nearly 900 million miles (1.5 billion kilometers) away, and…

Ice, Ice Mercury

It’s rare that astronomers declare news with great certainty, so the announcement that water ice was confirmed in Mercury’s poles is an “exclamation point.” The amount of ice is also astounding—100 billion to a trillion metric tons, or something like layering Washington, D.C. with 2 to 2.5 miles of ice.

Mercury MESSENGER 101

In Roman mythology, Mercury was the fleet-footed messenger to the gods. It’s therefore fitting that NASA went to great pains to name the first spacecraft to orbit the planet Mercury MESSENGER. That’s an acronym for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging. (Personally, I would have tried to find a way to name the orbiter…

Night Sky News: Tiny Mercury Easy to See This Week

Of the eight planets in our solar system, five are visible to the naked eye: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Known since ancient times, these naked-eye planets appear similar to stars, but they “wander” across the sky instead of staying in fixed positions relative to each other. Knowing where a planet will pop up…

Mercury Probe Searches for Vulcanoids, Spies Venus

The closer stuff is to the sun, the harder it is to see. —Image courtesy SOHO (ESA & NASA) That’s the fundamental problem with vulcanoids, a hypothetical band of asteroids orbiting between the sun and the closest planet in, Mercury. In fact, for years that was the problem with studying Mercury, since looking at the…

Final Mercury Flyby: Earth’s MESSENGER Closing In

At 5:55 p.m. ET today, the MESSENGER spacecraft will make its closest pass in its third and final flyby of the innermost planet. Mercury, as seen from MESSENGER on September 28, 2009 —Image courtesy NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington When images from the flyby start pouring in around midnight, scientists hope…

There’s More to Mercury Than Meets the Eye

It’s tiny, it’s pockmarked, and it’s got almost no atmosphere. So it’s probably small wonder that we cared so little for poor Mercury that we couldn’t be bothered to check out a whole half of the planet until 2008. —Image courtesy NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Arizona State University/Carnegie Institute of Washington But when we…

A Crater By Any Other Name

It’s been just over two weeks since the MESSENGER spacecraft swooped past Mercury during its second flyby of the innermost planet. Since the initial fervor, the MESSENGER team has been faithfully releasing images collected during the close encounter, some of which are providing data-hungry scientists with fodder for speculation about Mercury’s geologic processes. Today’s offering…

Mission to Mercury: Just the Facts

—Image courtesy NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington NASA’s MESSENGER space probe sent some postcards home this morning from its second jaunt past Mercury, that tiny planet nearest to the sun. The flyby is part of some maneuvering MESSENGER has to do to ease itself from orbiting the sun to orbiting Mercury.…

Today’s Mercury Flyby Is Brought to You by the Word “Intriguing”

At 4:40 EST today NASA’s MESSENGER space probe passed just 124 miles (200 kilometers) over the nearest planet to the sun. The move marked the closest approach MESSENGER will make during its second Mercury flyby, part of its maneuvering to settle neatly into orbit in 2011. The first flyby in January produced some amazing pictures…

Along Came a Spider

As anyone who’s recently cleaned their attic can tell you, unexpectedly finding a large spider sitting in a dark, hidden part of your home can elicit excitement, consternation, and sometimes a family squabble. Apparently it’s no different if you are a planetary scientist, even when the home in question is the solar system and the…