Washington, Jan 11 : NASA's MESSENGER Mission will make the first of three flybys of Mercury on January 14 at a speed of 141,000 miles per hour.
Launched in August 2004, MESSENGER has already flown by Venus twice and will make the first of three flybys of Mercury next week before finally settling into orbit around it in 2011.
The only other time Mercury was visited by a spacecraft was in 1974 and 1975, when NASA's Mariner 10 spacecraft made three flybys and mapped roughly 45 percent of the bizarre planet's hot, rocky surface, according to NASA.
According to Mark Lankton from LASP (Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics), the spacecraft is slated to zip by Mercury on Jan. 14 and take data and images for about 90 minutes.
For this purpose, the car-sized spacecraft is carrying seven instruments - a camera, a magnetometer, an altimeter and four spectrometers.
Another instrument - the Mercury Atmospheric and Surface Composition Spectrometer (MASCS), built by CU-Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, will make measurements of Mercury's surface and tenuous atmosphere.
What MASCS does is that it breaks up light like a prism, and since each element and compound in the universe has a unique spectral "signature," scientists can determine the distribution and abundance of various minerals and gases on the Mercury's surface and its atmosphere.
"The instrument will make ultraviolet, visible and near infrared observations of the surface of Mercury, which together should tell us a lot more about the planet's composition, formation and evolution," said LASP Senior Research Associate William McClintock.
MASCS will also scan Mercury's thin atmosphere - known as the exosphere - to determine its composition, and the spacecraft will fly through a comet-shaped cloud of sodium enveloping the planet during the flyby.
"We will fly it right down the cloud's tail," said McClintock. "Understanding how the cloud is replenished with sodium is one of the many pieces of this giant puzzle at Mercury we hope to solve," he added.
Another aim of the mission is studying Mercury's magnetic field and its interaction with the solar wind, including violent "sub-storms" that occur in the planet's vicinity.
"The strong magnetic field on Mercury indicates it most likely has a liquid or molten core like that on Earth," said LASP Director Daniel Baker.
"The LASP team is really spun up for this flyby," said Lankton. "It's very exciting, because this is the beginning of the science phase of the MESSENGER mission. It's a chance for us to make observations that have never been made before," he added.