Friday, March 9, 2012

Attitude Mercurial


In reviving my space trivia series on Twitter, I realized while going through my planetary research notes that I have completely neglected the smallest of our innermost and terrestrial planets, the lovely hot Mercury! How did that happen? Well, Mars is such a squeaky wheel, Mercury tends to get lost in the shuffle.

Crazy About A Mercury
I love Bing.

And Mercury is populated! Well... there are cities named Mercury in Alabama, Nevada, Texas, and Savoie, France. Cheap joke. But here you are, reading it.
Seriously -- planet Mercury, closest to our sun, smallest floating rock without being demoted to "dwarf" and the smallest axial tilt. Yeah, that one. Mr. Speedy, who orbits our parent star every 87.969 Earth days.

Assyrian astronomers in the 14th century BC were the first to record their observations of planet Mercury, on the famed Mul.Apin tablets, where its cuneiform name translates to "the jumping planet". Babylonians also recorded Mercury a few hundred years later, naming it "Nabu" after a messenger god.

Cuneiform Mul.Apin tablets
Ibn al-Shatir model for appearances of Planet Mercury

Later, the Greeks mistook Mercury for two planets, calling it "Apollo" at sunrise, and "Hermes" at sunset. Around 400 BC they realized this visible celestial body was one and the same, and it fell exclusively to Hermes, the winged messenger of the gods of Olympus. Romans equated the Greek Hermes with "Mercurius", the name from which "Mercury" eventually derived.

Humans sent 94 crafts to the moon, 39 crafts to Mars, 21 to Venus, and 2 to Mercury: Mariner 10 in 1974 and MESSENGER in 2011. Mercury missions alone have a 100% success rate... which is already pretty good, considering the massive technical challenges to studying Mercury up close!

Bepi Colombu Mercury Mission
Bepi Columbo Approaching Mercury

Bepi Columbo, a joint dual-probe mission of ESA & JAXA, will be next! One probe will map the planet, using spectrometers to study the planet in infrared, ultraviolet, X-ray and gamma. The other probe will measure Mercury's magnetosphere.

Upon completion, we'll know much more about Mercury's hot plains, impact craters and basins, magnetic field, core and crust and his unusually criss-crossing rupes.

The BC mission is named for Giuseppe Colombo (1920–1984), Italian scientist at the University of Padua, who developed the gravity-assist maneuver commonly used by planetary probes. Colombo devised the trajectory of NASA's Mariner 10, the first and only spacecraft to encounter Mercury during the 20th century.

And while we're on the subject of Mercury as a whole...

Big. Damn. Villain.