Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Solar System Scintillates

Now that's patience. Six years after it was launched from Earth, NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft is set to begin orbiting Mercury in several days, the first close rendezvous with the rocky little planet since 1975.

Astronomers are interested in Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun, because it is a terrestrial like Earth, not gassy like Jupiter. There are many such rocky surfaces around stars outside our solar system.

“Now that so many new planets are being discovered around stars in other solar systems, we need to know the effects of space weathering on rocky surfaces so we can accurately interpret telescopic and other remote sensing data we obtain from other rocky or dusty worlds," said one of the scientists working on the project.

MESSENGER is an acronym for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging and has been journeying toward the planet since August 3, 2004, “dancing” around Earth, the Moon and Mercury itself, mostly to keep it from being drawn in by the Sun’s gravitational pull.

Reading this article brings back memories of those solar system maps and charts from my elementary school days. Except now, technology has enabled our study of the solar system and the universe to be extended in infinite ways.

How many Earths like ours await discovery?