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Mercury mission blasts into solar orbit

Messenger probe safely en route

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The Messenger probe - headed for a rendevous with Mercury - lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida this morning on board a three-stage Boeing Delta II rocket.

The craft was placed into a solar orbit just 57 minutes after launch, and at this point it automatically deployed its solar panels and began sending data back to Earth.

Messenger has a long journey ahead of it: the 7.9bn kilometre journey will see it make 15 orbits of the sun. It will fly by Earth once, Venus twice and Mercury three times its final destination. When its journey is completed, seven years from now, it will be the first ever man-made object to orbit the solar system's innermost planet.

The 1974 Mariner 10 mission flew past the planet three times, but was only able to photograph 45 per cent of the surface, and carried out no other scientific investigation. Messenger carries seven different sets of instrumentation that it will use to probe Mercury for its secrets.

The mission is named for its purpose: Messenger stands for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, Geochemistry, and Ranging. Scientists will probe planet's composition, map its surface, and hope to discover whether any ice remains in its weird polar deposits. Mercury is also the only planet other than Earth that has a global magnetic field. Scientists hope to discover how this magnetic field is sustained, as it could shed light on how exactly our own field is generated.

Dr. Sean Solomon, from the Carnegie Institution of Washington, leads a science team of investigators from 13 institutions across the US. Commenting on the mission, he said: "It took technology more than 30 years, from Mariner 10 to MESSENGER, to bring us to the brink of discovering what Mercury is all about. By the time this mission is done we will see Mercury as a much different planet than we think of it today."

The launch, originally slated for yesterday morning, was delayed for 24 hours because of bad weather. ®

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