MESSENGER Gears Up To Orbit Mercury

This week MESSENGER will become the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury, the closest planet to the our sun. Messenger stands for MErcury Surface, Space ENironment, GEochemistry and Ranging.

This Thursday at 20:45 (8:45pm) EDT, MESSENGER will execute a 15-minute maneuver that will put it into Mercury’s orbit. This orbit will be a year-long science campaign to understand the planet. In the years time that it will spend orbiting around Mercury, it will fly around it 730 times.

The MESSENGER mission is an effort to study the geologic history, magnetic field surface composition and other mysteries of the planet. This mission is led by NASA, the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University and the Carnegie Institution. With more and more rocky planets being discovered in other solar systems there are hopes to broaden our understanding of rocky planets. Mercury is only slightly larger than our Moon and it’s core should have solidified. However, the presence of a magnetic field suggests the planet’s insides are partially molten.

During MESSENGER’s journey toward Mercury it had passed the planet several times, filling in the imaging gaps left by Mariner 10, which performed three fly-by maneuvers between 1974 and 1975. With Mariner 10’s images and MESSENGER’s images it has images the entire planet with an exception of about 5 percent. Previously Mariner 10 had only taken images of one side of Mercury leaving the other side a mystery. Once MESSENGER is in place it will focus it’s cameras on getting the best possible images of the remaining portions which is mostly in the polar regions.

The Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins will be airing a live webcast (also follow the link for the MESSENGER mission website) about the orbit insertion maneuver starting at 19:55 (7:55pm) EDT on Thursday, March 17.

Solar Maximum in 2012

Well I didn’t make a post about the solar flare on February 14th, but it’s not going to be the last one. Actually the sun has been “hibernating” for the past 4 or 5 years show very little to no activity as far as solar storms go. The solar flare on the 14th of February was the first X-class flare in four years, it was big enough to interfere with radio communications and GPS signals for airplanes.

As far as solar storms go the one that happened on Valentine’s day was actually quite modest, but it’s just the beginning of what is to come in the upcoming solar maximum, due to peak in the next couple years. The sun has been quiet the last couple years, but according to Tom bogdan the director of the Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado “The sun has an activty cycle, much like hurricane season, it’s been hibernating for four or five years, not doing much of anything.” Although the upcoming solar maximum could see a record low in it’s overall activity, the individual events could be quite powerful.

In 1859 the biggest solar storm on record happened during a solar maximum about the same size as the one we’re entering, according to NASA. The storm in 1859 has been dubbed the Carrington Even, after British astronomer Richard Carrinton. Carrington witnessed the megaflare and was the first to realize a link between the geomagnetic disturbances on earth and the activity on the sun. The storm was so huge reports of the northern lights were reported as far south as Cuba and Honolulu, while the southern lights were reported as far north as Santiago, Chile. The flares were so big in 1859 it is reported that people were able to read newspaper print from the light of the aurora in the Northeastern U.S.

Valentine's Day, Aurora, Sweden, Northern LightsThe northern lights seen from Sweden’s Abisko National Park on Valentine’s Day (Feb. 14, 2011). Credit to: National Geographic

In 1859 there wasn’t a whole lot of damage the solar storms could have done to civilization here on Earth, but if the solar maximum coming up is anything like that one we could see the world’s high-tech infrastructure grind to a halt. “What’s at stake,” the Space Weather Prediction Center’s Bogdan said, “are the advanced technologies that underlie virtually every aspect of our lives.”

Solar storms come in three stages, not all of which occur in every storm.
First, high-energy sunlight, mostly x-rays and ultraviolet light, ionizes Earth’s upper atmosphere, which in turn interferes with radio communications.
Next comes a radiation storm, which could potentially be dangerous to unprotected astronauts.
Finally, a coronal mass ejection, also known as a CME. A CME is a slower moving cloud of charged particles which takes a few days to finally reach Earth’s atmosphere after leaving the sun. The beautiful aurora’s you have seen pictures of, or possibly viewed with your own eyes is caused by these CME’s. Of course the beautiful aurora caused by CME’s can also damage sensitive electronic systems common in telecommunications satellites, or even knock out power grids on Earth.

If these storms hit Earth we could see quite an affect, just think about everything you do with todays technology, such as buying something with your credit card. You swipe that card and it’s a satellite transaction, if the satellite’s are down then your credit cards will not work. If the solar particles knock out giant transformers it could take quite a long time to repair, especially if there are hundreds all destroyed at once.

I love a good doomsday story, but unfortunately this is not a conspiracy, it is a real possibility. I’m not saying we need to create bomb shelters and stock up on canned goods, but it wouldn’t hurt to be prepared. We depend on a lot of technology that could possibly get knocked out by a solar storm this size. Even if it’s not as big as the Carrington Event of 1859, we could still see some damage done to our power grid. In 2003 there was a solar storm dubbed the “Halloween storms” which briefly knocked out power in Sweden and lit up the skies as far south as Florida and Texas.

In 2006 NASA put out a Solar Storm Warning to start taking place sometime between 2010 and 2012.

Resource for information “What If The Biggest Solar Storm on Record Happened Today” at National Geographic.