September 2009 Archives

Coming Attractions - MESSENGER

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Several space missions will start to deliver new science data in the next weeks or months, and will certainly bring lots of new information about many different aspects of the universe. Let's start looking at them...


The MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging) probe was launched in August 2004 and will start orbiting Mercury in 2011. It is taking a very complex route to get there: it has already flown by Earth in 2005, Venus in 2006 and 2007 and Mercury twice in 2008, yielding interesting science results on each of these passes. It is now about to make its third, and final, flyby of Mercury, using the planet's gravity once more to change its (the probe's) trajectory and lead it to an orbit insertion maneuvre in 18 March 2011.

2009-09-28-mercury.pngThe closest approach on this flyby, at 228km above the surface, will happen early in the morning of Wednesday, 30 September (7:55am Melbourne time); the image on the right (click to enlarge) is the view of Mercury from the probe last Friday, 25 September, at a distance of approximately 1.3 million km.

During the two previous flybys the probe mapped large areas of the surface that had never been seen properly. This time we will also get to see some small, still unmapped areas, but the main focus of the mission will be on getting better resolution images for some previously imaged areas and turning the probe's instruments on "interesting" areas identified earlier in the mission. Some of these include some unusually bright and some seemingly young craters; MESSENGER's website has a full description of these targets.

This flyby, like the previous two, will be packed with activity, as scientist try to squeeze as much information as possible from the few hours of close approach to the planet; nothing describes the frantic activities better than this panel provided by NASA, illustrating all observations that are planned in a graphical timeline. Also, for a full understanding of the complexity of MESSENGER's route from the Earth to Mercury, check out the Where is MESSENGER? webpage.

Astrophotography from home

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Just playing with my camera from home... this is what you can photograph in the sky from a very light-polluted place (central Melbourne) with a standard DSLR camera and no telescope (but a slightly long exposure):


Click on the image for a larger version. Io and Europa were visible through binoculars, but were lost on the glare of Jupiter on this photo. The dark band across the sky (in the large image) is a result of reflection on the window, as the photo was taken from indoors.

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