ST. LOUIS, August 3, 2004 - The first mission to explore the planet Mercury in more than 36 years began successfully today with the launch of NASA's MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space, ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging) spacecraft aboard a Boeing Delta II Heavy launch vehicle.
The launch occurred at 2:15:56.537 a.m EDT from Space Launch Complex 17B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Following a 57-minute flight, the spacecraft was deployed to an Earth-escape trajectory.
Upon arriving at Mercury in 2008, MESSENGER will make three passes of the planet before entering orbit around it in March 2011 to become the first spacecraft to visit Mercury since Mariner 10 in 1974-75.
During its orbital lifetime, MESSENGER's onboard cameras and sensors will image the planet and collect data on Mercury's geological and atmospheric composition, enabling scientists better to understand how Mercury was formed, how it evolved, and how it interacts with the Sun. MESSENGER will stay in orbit around Mercury for one Earth year, finishing its data collection in March 2012.
"The launch of the MESSENGER spacecraft aboard a Boeing Delta II continues our long-standing partnership with NASA," said Will Trafton, vice president and general manager, Boeing Expendable Launch Systems. "The dependable Delta II has carried aloft a wide variety of interplanetary and planetary explorers for the space agency that are helping us better to understand the Earth and our solar system. Our continued launch success is testament to the reliability of this versatile launch system and the Delta team's commitment to excellence."
MESSENGER is the seventh mission selected for NASA's Discovery Program, which focuses on planetary exploration. The spacecraft was developed by The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.
The Boeing Delta II 7925 Heavy launch vehicle used for the MESSENGER mission featured a Rocketdyne RS-27A first stage engine, nine 46-inch diameter stretched solid rocket boosters provided by Alliant Techsystems, an Aerojet AJ10-118K engine that powered the second stage, a Thiokol Star-48B solid-rocket motor that powered the third stage, and a nine-and-a-half-foot diameter Boeing fairing that protected the spacecraft during flight.
Delta II rockets also use the Redundant Inertial Flight Control Assembly system from L3 Communications Space & Navigation that provides launch vehicle guidance and control to enable precision payload deployments.
The next Delta mission will be the maiden flight of the Boeing Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle planned for this fall from Space Launch Complex 37B at Cape Canaveral.
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