An event seven years in the making, the Messenger satellite has finally achieved orbit around Mercury, becoming the first man-made object to orbit the planet closest to the sun.
After the Japanese attempt to put a satellite around Venus earlier this year failed miserably, tensions were high as the Messenger Satellite approached Mercury. As the satellite began a thruster burn to slow down enough to be grabbed by Mercury's gravity, everyone knew that there was a chance that 15 years of planning and seven years of space travel could go down the drain. But the worries were for naught as the Messenger was caught in orbit around Mercury.
Messenger, an acronym for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging was quite the busy satellite on its 4.9 billion mile journey to Mercury. In order to slow itself to the appropriate speed and approach Mercury at the correct angle, the satellite had to fly by Earth once, Venus twice, and Mercury three times, and had to orbit the sun 15 times. Through it all, Messenger took pictures of the inner planets, including one of Earth and the Moon from 114 million miles away, seen above.
Messenger is now in a 12-hour orbit around Mercury, running diagnostic tests to ensure everything is working properly. To protect itself against the harsh heat of the sun, which is 11 times brighter on Mercury than on Earth, the whole satellite has a ceramic shield, to protect those delicate science-y bits. The goals of the satellite are varied, and include mapping the surface of the planet, analyzing it's composition, and measuring the strength of its magnetic field. The experiments should begin April 4.