Behind the Mission to Mercury

Behind the Mission to Mercury


The MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) spacecraft mission to Mercury began August 3, 2004 with the launch of the MESSENGER spacecraft. It is a scientific investigation of Mercury, the least explored terrestrial planet. In March 2011, MESSENGER entered Mercury’s orbit and has been sending back data about this mysterious planet. The activities here will help you assess the goals, benefits, success, and limitations of technology (instruments) on this space mission. 


To learn more about the mission to Mercury read:

Click on underlined words for further definitions and take notes as you read. You will want to be familiar with constraints for design and cost of the mission. You will also want to jot down the different instruments and what each does. This information will help you make decisions throughout the rest of the lesson.

As you read, take notes on the following questions so that you’ll be prepared for discussion You can record your notes on the Behind the Mission to Mercury student sheet.

  • How will this mission help us learn about earth and the solar system as a whole?
  • What are the goals of the MESSENGER Mission?
  • When scientists and engineers had to do the initial planning for this mission, what do you think they had to take into consideration?
  • Consider the X-Ray Spectrometer. Do you think that the people planning this mission had to consider how much money it would cost to build it?
  • What if you only had a certain amount of money, and you had to spend less on the X-Ray Spectrometer or on other instruments? What are some considerations when making your choice?
  • How could you find out about the life and quality of the instrument, before it is built?
  • What are other limitations for the instruments for this mission?
  • What is the point of testing the performance of an instrument before the mission?

Part One: Some cost and design constraints when planning a mission

Now, go to MESSENGER: Mission to Mercury. At the top of the page, click on the Mission, then Goals, the Craft, and the Journey.

  1. After reading each, click on Make a Mission.
  2. Press "Start" at the bottom of the page. Read How to Play.
  3. Once you're done, or at any time during the interactive, click on the Learn More button to get more information about planning a mission.
  4. After you've planned one mission, click Home to start again. Try at least both medium and hard space missions.

As you work through the interactive, take notes on the following questions so that you'll be prepared for discussion

  • Why are the instruments an important factor in meeting the goals of the mission?
  • What are some of the goals of the mission?
  • What constraints did you notice when planning for this mission?
  • Were there tradeoffs when trying to make the mission work?

Part Two: Your team proposes an instrument for the Mercury Mission

Your team has been assigned the task of proposing, testing, and designing an instrument for the Mercury Mission. Keep in mind, that even though you have been assigned a particular instrument with certain goals, you are part of a creative team. You may want to expand on what the instrument actually achieves, or change the instrument. Even though you will read about the instrument online for the real mission, take creative license with the one that your team creates. Revisit Spacecraft Design. Also, read Mission Design.

The Proposal Guidelines for Mercury Mission Instruments provides guidelines for your team to follow. In addition to the written proposal, your group will provide sketches and a small model of your instrument. Be sure to work together to write your answers for the proposal. Most answers should be five to ten succinct sentences, and therefore should be well thought out.

This esheet is a part of the Behind the Mission to Mercury lesson.

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