A good portion of the project teams at NASA is focusing on future missions to Mars. However, the closest planet to our sun is still getting some attention. Three years ago, NASA’s Messenger mission ended. Messenger was the orbiter that was sent to Mercury, and scientists are currently studying the information that the satellite gathered. There’s another Mercury mission scheduled for later this year—another orbiter launch. However, the orbiter won’t arrive at Mercury for another 7 years.
In the meantime, scientists are studying what steps would need to be taken to put a rover on the surface of Mercury. It’s not a new thought—studies were conducted in 2010 regarding the potential of a Mercury lander mission, but the technology at that time made a mission unfeasible. Technology has progressed and experts believe that in the coming years a Mercury landing could be accomplished. Committees are currently putting together a “to-do” list for planetary exploration through 2032, so a Mercury landing is back on the table.
There are no proposals on the table right now that spell out specific goals—just getting a lander on the surface of Mercury would be considered an accomplishment. There’s plenty of items to add to the research wish list, though. Mercury experiences extreme temperature changes, it rotates on its axis three times for every two trips around the sun, some places on the surface offer double sunsets and sunrises, and many other phenomena. In short, scientists will have no difficulty in coming up with a list of things to study.
If we can actually get a lander on the surface…
It would prove to be one of the most difficult unmanned missions the space agency has ever undertaken. It would take as much as seven years and three different rockets just to get the lander to Mercury’s surface. That’s just the first part of the challenge. Once a lander was on the surface, there would be the temperature fluctuation to contend with—800 degrees Fahrenheit in the day and minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit at night.
The key to greenlighting a Mercury surface mission will lie with the data collected from the orbiter that will be launched later this year. That data will determine the feasibility and affordability of putting a lander on our solar system’s tiny first planet.