National Aeronautics and Space Administration Logo
Follow this link to skip to the main content NASA Banner
Solar System Exploration
News & Events
3 Aug 2004
(Source: Kennedy Space Center)

George Diller
Kennedy Space Center, Fla.
August 3, 2004
(Phone: 321/867-2468)

Don Savage
Headquarters, Washington
(Phone: 202/358-1727)

Michael Buckley
Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory
(Phone: 240/228-7536)

KSC Release No: 59 - 04

Mercury-bound MESSENGER Launches from Cape Canaveral

NASA Spacecraft to Conduct First Study of Innermost Planet from Orbit

NASA's MESSENGER -- set to become the first spacecraft to orbit the planet Mercury -- launched today at 2:15:56 a.m. EDT aboard a Boeing Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.

The approximately 1.2-ton (1,100-kilogram) spacecraft, designed and built by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md., was placed into a solar orbit 57 minutes after launch. Once in orbit, MESSENGER automatically deployed its two solar panels and began sending data on its status. Once the mission operations team at APL acquired the spacecraft's radio signals through tracking stations in Hawaii and California, Project Manager David G. Grant confirmed the craft was operating normally and ready for early system check-outs.

"Congratulations to the MESSENGER launch team for a spectacular start to this mission of exploration to the planet Mercury," said Orlando Figueroa, Deputy Associate Administrator for Programs in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, Washington. "While we celebrate this major milestone, let's keep in mind there is still a lot to do before we reach our destination."

"All the work that went into designing and building this spacecraft is paying off beautifully," Grant said. "Now the team is ready to guide MESSENGER through the inner solar system and put us on target to begin orbiting Mercury in 2011."

During a 4.9-billion mile (7.9-billion kilometer) journey that includes 15 trips around the sun, MESSENGER will fly past Earth once, Venus twice and Mercury three times before easing into orbit around its target planet. The Earth flyby, in August 2005, and the Venus flybys, in October 2006 and June 2007, will use the pull of the planets' gravity to guide MESSENGER toward Mercury's orbit. The Mercury flybys in January 2008, October 2008 and September 2009 help MESSENGER match the planet's speed and location for an orbit insertion maneuver in March 2011. The flybys also allow the spacecraft to gather data critical to planning a yearlong orbit phase.

Since MESSENGER is only the second spacecraft sent to Mercury -- Mariner 10 flew past it three times in 1974-75 and gathered detailed data on less than half the surface -- the mission has an ambitious science plan. With a package of seven science instruments MESSENGER will determine Mercury's composition; image its surface globally and in color; map its magnetic field and measure the properties of its core; explore the mysterious polar deposits to learn whether ice lurks in permanently shadowed regions; and characterize Mercury's tenuous atmosphere and Earth-like magnetosphere.

"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," said Dr. Sean C. Solomon, MESSENGER's principal investigator from the Carnegie Institution of Washington, who leads a science team of investigators from 13 institutions across the U.S. "By the time this mission is done we will see Mercury as a much different planet than we think of it today."

MESSENGER, short for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, Geochemistry, and Ranging, is the seventh mission in NASA's Discovery Program of lower cost, scientifically focused exploration projects. APL manages the mission for NASA's Office of Space Science, built the spacecraft and will operate MESSENGER during flight. MESSENGER is the 61 st spacecraft built at APL.

"With MESSENGER on its way to Mercury, the reality is sinking in that in a few years, we will see things that no human has ever seen and know infinitely more about the formation of the solar system than we know today," said Dr. Michael D. Griffin, head of the APL Space Department.

The countdown and launch was managed by the NASA Launch Services Program based at the John F. Kennedy Space Center, Fla. The Delta II launch service was provided by Boeing Expendable Launch Systems, Huntington Beach, Calif. MESSENGER's science instruments were built by APL; NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.; University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; and University of Colorado, Boulder. GenCorp Aerojet, Sacramento, Calif., and Composite Optics Inc., San Diego, provided MESSENGER's propulsion system and composite structure, respectively. KinetX, Inc., Simi Valley, Calif., leads the navigation team. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Deep Space Network of antenna stations the team uses to communicate with MESSENGER.

For photos of the launch or more information about the MESSENGER mission, visit or

NASA Probe Launched by Boeing Delta II Heading to Mercury Boeing
August 3, 2004

ST. LOUIS - 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.

A unit of The Boeing Company, Integrated Defense Systems is one of the world 's largest space and defense businesses. Headquartered in St. Louis, Boeing Integrated Defense Systems is a $27 billion business. It provides systems solutions to its global military, government and commercial customers. It is a leading provider of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; the world's largest military aircraft manufacturer; the world's largest satellite manufacturer and a leading provider of space-based communications; the primary systems integrator for U.S. missile defense; NASA's largest contractor; and a global leader in launch services.


Robert Villanueva
Boeing Expendable Launch Systems (714) 372-2089
Paula Shawa
Boeing Expendable Launch Systems (714) 372-1694
Communications (714) 896-1301
Boeing Launch Hotline (714) 896-4770

News Archive Search  Go!
Show  results per page
Awards and Recognition   Solar System Exploration Roadmap   Contact Us   Site Map   Print This Page
NASA Official: Kristen Erickson
Advisory: Dr. James Green, Director of Planetary Science
Outreach Manager: Alice Wessen
Curator/Editor: Phil Davis
Science Writers: Courtney O'Connor and Bill Dunford
Producer: Greg Baerg
Webmaster: David Martin
> NASA Science Mission Directorate
> Budgets, Strategic Plans and Accountability Reports
> Equal Employment Opportunity Data
   Posted Pursuant to the No Fear Act
> Information-Dissemination Policies and Inventories
> Freedom of Information Act
> Privacy Policy & Important Notices
> Inspector General Hotline
> Office of the Inspector General
> NASA Communications Policy
> NASA Advisory Council
> Open Government at NASA
Last Updated: 6 Aug 2004