NASA's ambitious mission to Mercury finally got a huge breakthrough yesterday; post the Messenger spacecraft safely entering the orbit of the innermost planet of the solar system.

The final approach!

The final approach!

This mission holds great significance for several reasons – the Messenger spacecraft is now the first ever space vehicle to come this close to Mercury. Also, Mercury’s proximity to the Sun makes this whole mission very crucial and challenging. Spanning a journey of over six and a half years from the Space coast to Mercury, the spacecraft has a special reflective surface protecting it from the intense heat coming from Mercury’s neighbour, and also extreme day and night (Day: 800 °F, Night: -300 °F) temperatures on Mercury’s surface.

At around 5:54 PM, Messenger’s main engine ignited, following pre-instructed commands. This ignition lowered the speed of the spacecraft enough to settle in the elliptical orbit of the Mercury.

The spacecraft has seven miniaturized instruments on board, including two cameras, four spectrometers, a magnetometer and a laser altimeter. Using these instruments, Messenger will record details of its origins and the composition of the surface, as well get high resolution pictures of the planet.

The Messenger spacecraft embarked its mission on Aug. 3, 2004, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a Delta II rocket. The spacecraft has already covered a distance of 4.9 billion miles. Messenger will circle Mercury every 12 hours, flying as close as 124 miles from the surface.

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