NASA launches Mercury spacecraft

Tropical Storm Alex forced a day's delay for Hopkins mission

August 03, 2004|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

NASA launched the Messenger spacecraft to Mercury today, the first spacecraft in 30 years to head to the sun's closest planet.

Messenger rocketed away in the pre-dawn moonlight from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on what will be a 5 billion-mile, 6 1/2 -year journey to Mercury. The trip should have started a day earlier, but clouds from Tropical Storm Alex postponed liftoff.

Messenger's team at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory was told to stand down yesterday 7 minutes before their spacecraft had been scheduled to rocket into space.

APL's test director, Michael Paul, relayed the news from Florida to the approximately 30 members of his team, who were crowded into the APL mission control center near Laurel.

"We are a scrub," he said. "It's over." Everyone seemed to take the delay in stride. "It's not that disappointing," said Dipak Srinivasan, a radio frequency engineer at APL. "You just lose a little sleep."

The launch window was due to reopen for 12 seconds each night through Aug. 14, although NASA was expected to rest the launch team at the Cape a day if the first three attempts had been unsuccessful.

From their control room at APL -- 773 miles from the Cape -- the Messenger team monitors the spacecraft's health throughout the countdown, tracking its internal temperatures, battery charge and other issues.

After the spacecraft separates from its Delta II rocket, the team will take control for the rest of the 7 1/2 -year mission, a circuitous journey of 4.9 billion miles.

The APL engineers knew throughout the first countdown that the weather in Florida was a threat. As they worked, fueled by popcorn and cookies, they watched looped satellite and radar images of the storm as it crept toward Cape Canaveral.

With the scrub, their hard work became another of the 50 or 60 launch drills they had run together. "Well, we had a good rehearsal, everybody," Srinivasan said in a kind of benediction.

Once launched, Messenger will be hurled into orbit around the sun. It will fly past Earth in August 2005, and Venus in 2006 and 2007.

After three Mercury flybys in 2008 and 2009, it will settle into orbit around Mercury in March 2011. There it will begin a one-year study of the planet's geology, magnetic field, atmosphere and space environment.

It's the first mission targeted at Mercury since the Mariner 10 spacecraft flew by three times in 1974 and 1975.

The Associated Press contributed to this article. For an updated story on the Messenger launch, go to www.baltimoresun.com/messenger

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