Jason Kendall
William Paterson University
Amateur Astronomers Association of New York

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MESSENGER Arrives at Mercury!

March 17, 2011: 8:30 pm - 10:15 pm
Hayden Planetarium, American Museum of Natural History

On March 17, 2011, the MESSENGER spacecraft will enter orbit about the innermost planet, Mercury, and become the first craft ever to do so. A critical 15-minute orbital maneuver will initiate a one-year science campaign to understand the innermost planet. The MESSENGER spacecraft, developed under NASA's Discovery Program and launched over six years ago, is the first space probe to investigate Mercury in more than 30 years. Join me, Jason Kendall, as I visit with Dr. Denton Ebel, associate curator in the Museum's Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and Director of Astrovisualization Dr. Carter Emmart as they share the details of this maneuver and watch a live video feed from the Mission Operations Center as we hear the results.

I will have NASA posters, handouts and swag from the MESSENGER mission!

Starlight Cafe will offer refreshments for purchase from 8 - 10 pm.

Article for the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York

MESSENGER Arrives at Mercury

On March 17, the MESSENGER spacecraft became the first spacecraft to ever orbit the nearest rock to the Sun. NASA TV streamed the updates live via webcast on that evening. The American Museum of Natural History created a special event for that evening. Hosted by Dr. Denton Ebel, the floor of the Rose Center for Earth and Space was transformed into a live webcast arena, with the Museum's AstroViz showing a super-sized television of the live webcast. The Museum's staff that ran the event were Dr. Ebel, Dr. Joe Bosenberg, Dr. Carter Emmart, Brian Levine and myself. I acted as the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador to the event, assisting with publicity, and procuring from NASA's APL promotional posters, buttons and stickers for all attendees, which were updated that week for the Orbital Insertion.

This night was extremely important for the MESSENGER team (which stands for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging, because it was the conclusion of the flight to Mercury and the beginning of orbital operations. Launched on August 3, 2004, the car-sized spacecraft used numerous gravity assists and deep-space maneuvers to arrive at this hot world almost 7 years later. Flying by Earth once, Venus twice, and Mercury three times, the final flight plan was to burn the main engine for 15 minutes to slow the spacecraft down enough such that it would be finally captured by Mercury into orbit. Many things had to go right, and all of them did that evening. At 8:55 PM, the main engine fired successfully, and the engineers watched as various timestamps passed by, each one showing consecutive successes in the required sequence required to make the orbital insertion happen as planned. As the crowd of about 250 watched the events unfold, there was standing room only. As each event happened, the crowd applauded the event. I was also reporting to the crowd about the events happening on Twitter, because the NASA webcast was about two minutes behind the Twitter feed. At 9:11 PM, the confirmation of main engine shutdown occurred, I reported it to the crowd, and they had an extra dose of the event. Many attendees also brought their laptops, Droids and iPhones to put the event on Twitter and Facebook to their friends. The social media aspect of the event was an important one, with NASA covering the event from numerous locations. This extensive use of many simultaneous outlets with people all in the same room watching the event in many formats is becoming a normal fixture in many live NASA events.

Participating in this from the Museum's perspective, Dr. Carter Emmart was on conference call leading his Digital Universe "flyer" Brian Levine through the MESSENGER spacecraft's trajectory with the Hayden's 3-D space simulation software. We were able to replay the event as though viewing it from space. Accurately showing the orbital insertion, and the subsequent orbits that it will do, Dr. Emmart and Mr. Levine showed the crowd how MESSENGER would take its science data. Unfortunately, the data set for the flyby won't be available on the Hayden's public website for download.

Dr. Ebel presented a slideshow about the spacecraft itself, showing the science instruments, and its construction. He fielded questions as he went, and he passed a few of the questions off to me to answer. Dr. Ebel also outlined the mission's core goals. Planetary scientists have been aching to get back to Mercury since the three flybys of Mariner 10 in 1974. Most of the planet was not imaged, and numerous discoveries tantalized scientists for decades, including the presence of a magnetic field and a tenuous atmosphere. With the explosion of exoplanet discoveries, this planet nearest our Sun holds many keys to understanding the formation of Terrestrial planets, helping us to understand how the Solar System fits in with all forms of planetary system formation. Mercury is the most extreme of the inner Solar System: the smallest, the densest, the oldest surface, largest daily temperature variations, and the least explored. Planetary scientists wished to answer the important questions about this extreme planet. The MESSENGER mission seeks to learn why Mercury is so dense. It has a metal-rich core which takes up about two-thirds of the planet's mass, which is twice that of Earths. The next part of the mission is to learn Mercury's geologic history. By studying the formations and features of the surface, past volcanism, meteoritic impacts and tectonic activity can be deduced. Next up will be the magnetic field. Mercury's global field is about 1% the strength of Earth's, but at least it has one, unlike Mars and Venus. Characterizing the magnetic field will help determine the formation differences between the rocky planets. Related to characterizing the magnetic field will be determining the structure of Mercury's core. Combining gravimetric measurements and accurate laser altimetry will determine the size of the core, and verify whether or not the outer core is molten, like the Earth. Next, the spacecraft will measure the composition of Mercury's tenuous exosphere. An exosphere is like an atmosphere, except it is so thin that individual atoms, molecules and ions never collide. They simply follow ballistic up-down trajectories over Mercury, or escape altogether with the solar wind. Determining the composition of this exosphere will illuminate the processes that cause its existence. Finally, and most tantalizing, is the determination of the strange materials at Mercury's poles. At the poles, some craters are so deep that they are in permanent shadow. Radar studies of Mercury have shown some highly reflective material in these craters that may actually be water ice. The extremes of Mercury are so great, that the noon-time solar side of Mercury can be as hot as 800 degrees Fahrenheit, but the polar craters can be as cold as few hundred degrees below zero. With the night-time side of the planet going down to -300 degrees Fahrenheit, the surface of Mercury is an astonishing place with many surprises in store.

Dr. Ebel was asked, as have many Mercury researchers, why actually study Mercury? Arguably, no one will ever go there, and there is little chance life ever arose there, so what's the attraction? Dr. Ebel's clear response, as was echoed by the NASA team on the conference call was that this unknown world holds clues to the origin of all the terrestrial planets. But I prefer to think that the explorers piloting the spacecraft feel akin to George Mallory about why to climb Mount Everest: "Because it's there." Studying this planet is pure exploration, as the NASA team stated in the webcast, and it represents an amazing challenge technologically and scientifically to tease the secrets out of this harsh world. On that night, the risks payed off, and the long trek was over: the mountain was summited. Now begins the science. On March 29, the spacecraft sent back its first pictures from orbit, including surface that had not yet been imaged. Looking like a shattered windshield, the great crater Debussy displayed long rays stretching into the Mercurial night. NASA's website for the mission is http://messenger.jhuapl.edu/

About Jason Kendall

I am currently adjunct faculty at William Paterson University teaching astronomy. I hold a Master of Science in Astronomy from New Mexico State University. I am also a board member of the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York. Since 2008, I have led the Inwood Astronomy Project which brought over 200 events of stargazing and public astronomy outreach to upper Manhattan, including the historic Inwood Star Fest, where Inwood Hill Park lights were turned off as part of the 100 Hours of Astronomy event in IYA2009. This was the first time in New York City history when park lights were turned off for an astronomy event. I've also focused on park safety due to an uptick in sexual assaults in Washington Heights and Inwood during 2011. I've worked to make our parks safer by encouraging public use of parks at night through night-time events with Park Rangers. I have led numerous "starwatching parties" and astronomy events in New York City, New Mexico, Minnesota, New Jersey, Connecticut and Texas. I am also proud to have been part of the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador Program from 2009 to 2012. It all started way back in the fourth grade by the encouragement of two noted astronomers, Charles Schweighauser and Bart Bok. I saw Saturn through Charlie's telescope at then Sangamon State University on a clear Illinois night, and Bart encouraged me under those stars to study hard to come visit him at Kitt Peak National Observatory. I finally did make it down there about a decade after Bart passed away, and I found the favorite spots in Tucson, Arizona, where Bart and his wife Priscilla would spend when they were not gazing at the stars. Bart and his wife were pioneers in the study of the Milky Way, and their studies of the starforming regions called Bok Globules. It's even in my family. My great-grandfather was a Midwestern minister who used to preach his sermons out under the dark, cloudless nights. He always believed that getting out and experiencing the wonders of the natural world was a central part of being human. My family has always been inspired by his words: "We look up to look within." I hope that you'll join me under the stars or at one of my talks.

Come see what's up in the sky!

Jason Kendall

We look up to look within

William Paterson University Department of Physics American Astronomical Society Astronomical Society of the Pacific Amateur Astronomers Association of New York

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