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Spacecraft Built By Md. Scientists Takes New Pictures Of Mercury

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Alex DeMetrick 370x278 Alex DeMetrick
Alex DeMetrick has been a general assignment reporter with WJZ...
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LAUREL, Md. (WJZ) — A spacecraft built by Maryland scientists is the one and only vehicle orbiting the planet Mercury.

Alex DeMetrick reports that voyage is producing some first-ever pictures of the planet closest to the sun.

The “Messenger” spacecraft was built by Maryland engineers and scientists at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.  It has taken years for “Messenger” to achieve just the right distance and velocity to lock into orbit around the planet Mercury.

“It will be the first spacecraft ever to orbit the innermost planet,” said Dr. Sean Solomon, principal investigator.

And at APL, the first photos of what had been blank spots on Mercury are coming down.

“It’s never been seen by a spacecraft before, and that’s in the polar regions.  Because we’re in a polar orbit, we can see areas in the North Pole and the South Pole for the first time,” said Dr. Nancy Chabot, Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

It is a planet scarred by impacts that broils at 800-degrees dayside and freezes at 300-below at night.  Stradling the extremes are craters at the poles, where the hunt is on for ice.

Individual photos are carefully built into a mosaic.

Mercury’s secrets aren’t just on the surface.  Instruments on the spacecraft might also reveal what’s inside.

“We want to go after the question of what’s unknown and what’s Mercury made of.  Is the core fluid? Is the core solid?  You can only do that from orbit,” said Solomon.

And that can only be done by “Messenger.”

“Messenger” is programmed to orbit for one year, sending 75,000 photos back to Maryland and the rest of the world.

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