On March 17, 2011, NASA's MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) vehicle will begin to orbit the planet Mercury, and continue to orbit the environmentally hostile planet every 12 hours for the duration of its mission. An onboard device dubbed FIPS (Fast Imaging Plasma Spectrometer) designed and built at the University of Michigan will take atmospheric measurements.
"March 17 will be the culmination of decades of aspirations and dreams for the U-M FIPS team," said team leader Thomas Zurbuchen, professor in the departments of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Science and Aerospace Engineering at the College of Engineering. "FIPS will be the first plasma instrument to explore the plasmas in Mercury's space environment. This will also be a celebration for the more than 60 students, scientists, engineers and staff who have collaborated on this project since its beginning in the late nineties."
MESSENGER was launched in the summer of 2004, with flybys of Venus in 2006, 2007 and three Mercury flybys between 2008 and 2009. On March 17 this year, MESSENGER will achieve orbital insertion above the planet closest to the Sun.
Never before has the surface of Mercury been observed in so much detail. Of all the terrestrial planets in the solar system including the Earth, Venus, and Mars, Mercury is the most unusual and least explored among them. FIPS will analyze ions and solar winds contained in Mercury's magnetosphere, the magnetic bubble which protects the surface of the planet, much like that which shields the Earth from solar radiation.
Michigan Engineering Ph.D. student Jim Raines is running the FIPS instrumentation and Bob Lundgren is the lead engineer who deserves much of the credit for building the device. Says Lundgren, "In today's NASA, it is very unusual to fly an experiment without heritage, but the scientists knew there would be a significant gap in the mission science without FIPS, so they accepted the risk of developing a new instrument, and Michigan was charged with the task."
Raines said: "We have waited a long time -- most more than 10 years -- for this moment to come and we look forward with great excitement to the discoveries that MESSENGER will make. With FIPS in particular, we hope to learn a lot about the dynamic and at times violent space environment of Mercury, including the direct impact of the solar wind plasma on the surface and its interaction with Mercury's thin atmosphere and magnetic field."
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