160 Miles To Km – When astronomers try to explain why everyone should be excited about space news, they use hyperbole: It’s the hottest/coldest/biggest/smallest/oldest/most mysterious/powerful thing. have not seen! So it’s no surprise that when mission scientists landed on Mercury again, they were celebrating the first images returned from Mercury, taken by NASA’s MESSENGER probe, the first spacecraft to orbit the sun-ridden planet. Burnt small worlds run spacecraft.
Mercury is the closest planet to the sun. It’s the smallest planet (now Pluto doesn’t count). It’s dense. Due to the lack of a cooling atmosphere, its temperature range is almost unimaginable, from 950°F (510°C) on the sunlit side to -346°F (-210°C) on the shady side. In a temperate world like ours, the temperature difference between the hottest and coldest parts of the planet rarely exceeds 100°F (55.55°C). At a NASA press conference on Wednesday, March 30, Sean Solomon, chief scientist at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, tried to explain things almost mythically: He said it was the last scientific planet that astronomers had known planets. Egypt, Greece, Rome, and the Far East—some ideas that excite teachers of Latin and history around the world.
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If all this had happened, there probably wouldn’t be much of a story here. But if you don’t care about planets at all, Mercury has all kinds of mysteries that Aristotle never thought of. Its enormous density may be due to its relatively large iron core, but it’s unclear how that core got there (a wonderfully catastrophic possibility: lighter surface rocks collide with another planet’s massive explode on impact). As MESSENGER studies Mercury’s surface, answers may emerge that could help theorists understand not only how Mercury formed, but how the entire solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago.
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It’s unclear whether the permanently shadowed regions near Mercury’s poles harbor ice deposits. If ice does exist, it has been there since the dawn of life on Earth, so it could also provide evidence for the birth of the solar system.
All scientists can say with certainty at this point is that this is the photo Messenger started sending back on March 30. The most amazing thing they’ve confirmed so far is that Mercury is the most heavily cratered place they’ve ever seen. The moon looks as flat as a parking lot. Since the Moon has been at least partially re-covered by massive lava flows; by contrast, Mercury has had the same surface for billions of years. That’s not all: when an asteroid or meteorite hits Mercury, the strong gravity of the nearby sun means it’s going very fast.
Messenger’s full suite of neutron detectors and other instruments (seven in total) will begin on Monday, April 4. Then, for at least the next year, the spacecraft will begin observing Mercury in unprecedented detail. Its range ranges from a maximum of 9,300 miles (15,000 kilometers) to a minimum of 160 miles (257 kilometers). As the ship goes about its business, many of the Mercury’s most stubborn secrets are finally revealed.
Michael D. Lemonick spent nearly 21 years there, writing more than 50 cover stories on science, health and the environment. He is now a senior writer for the Climate Center, a nonprofit science and news organization. He is currently working on his fifth book on the search for Earth-like planets around other stars.
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