MESSENGER’s Low-Altitude Campaign: Mercury at Unprecedented Close Range
Monday, 15 December 2014: 1:40 PM
In March 2013, the MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft began its Second Extended Mission (XM2) to acquire observations of Mercury’s surface and interior at unprecedented spatial resolution and measurements of the planet’s dynamic magnetosphere and exosphere at high temporal resolution during the peak and declining phase of the current solar cycle. XM2 is framed by six science questions, each motivated by discoveries and observations made during MESSENGER’s Primary and First Extended Missions: (1) What active and recent processes have affected Mercury’s surface? (2) How has the state of stress in Mercury’s crust evolved over time? (3) How have compositions of volcanic materials on Mercury evolved over time? (4) What are the characteristics of volatile emplacement and sequestration in Mercury’s north polar region? (5) What are the consequences of precipitating ions and energetic electrons at Mercury? (6) How do Mercury’s exosphere and magnetosphere respond to both extreme and stable solar wind conditions during solar maximum and the declining phase of the solar cycle? Also since March 2013, the periapsis altitude, or closest approach distance to Mercury’s surface, has declined progressively with each orbit, in response to the gravitational attraction of the Sun, although the rate of that decline depends on the angle between the Mercury–Sun line and MESSENGER’s orbit plane. For the first year of XM2, no propulsive orbit-correction maneuvers (OCMs) were conducted to change the evolution of the spacecraft’s orbital parameters. Because sufficient propellant remained at the end of that year to complete four periapsis-raising OCMs, a low-altitude campaign was designed to use those maneuvers to maximize the number of orbits for which the periapsis altitude is as low as 15–25 km. The periapsis altitude passed below 200 km altitude for the first time on 20 April 2014 and below 100 km altitude for the first time on 25 July 2014. It will reach 25 km for three extended intervals prior to OCMs on 12 September and 24 October 2014 and 21 January 2015. A two-week period in February and March 2015 during which the periapsis altitude will be ~15 km precedes the end of mission on 28 March 2015 and will provide the highest-resolution observations of Mercury ever attained.