Innovation Blog

Mercury: A Toast to Curiosity! (Cost: $445 m.!)

By Shlomo Maital



MESSENGER to Mercury


What’s the point??  Many ask this about America’s NASA (National Aeronautical and Space Administration) huge spending on space exploration. 

    Take, for instance, “Messenger” (Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging) mission to the planet Mercury.  It was first launched on Aug. 3, 2004, nearly seven years ago.  To reach Messenger with a sufficient payload, the ‘slingshot’ effect of gravity was used – Messenger did a zip around Earth, a zip around Venus (2006), another zip around Venus (2007), three ‘flyby’s’ near Mercury, and now at last, on March 18, Messenger entered Mercury’s orbit. 

   So what?  How will humanity benefit?

   Mercury is a very weird planet.  It’s the smallest and innermost planet of all and has the smallest axial tilt.   We know very very little about Mercury. But Messenger will soon fix that, as it begins mapping the planet.  Mercury is very very dense, partly because of its large iron core (similar to Earth’s).  It is very hot and also very cold, with temperatures ranging from minus 183 C. to plus 427 C., depending on whether the region faces the sun or is at the bottom of dark craters.  Its name comes from the Romans, who named it after the god Hermes, the speedy messenger god.   Mercury has ice and a highly varied terrain, with plains and mountains and craters.  And, Mercury has a magnetic field, like earth.  The Mercury year is 88 Earth-days, but its slow spin gives it a single day (sunrise to sunrise) of twice that, or 176 Earth days!   (Your working life on Mercury will thus be only about a couple of months).

   MESSENGER was expensive; it cost NASA (and the US taxpayer) $446 m., nearly half a billion dollars. In these days of fierce budget cutting, it is doubtful whether the U.S. Congress would have approved the Messenger project.  This is a shame.   NASA cooks up great stories about what we might learn from Messenger.  But the truth is, innovation and science are driven by curiosity, and sometimes, satisfying our curiosity is very expensive.  A society without curiosity, and without the ability and willingness to fund that curiosity with time, effort and money,  is without hope.

   So –let’s raise a toast to curiosity, and to Messenger, and to the mysterious hot-cold Mercury.  Let’s continue to explore wherever our curiosity drives us, because that is what makes us human, makes us creative – and makes life worth living.