Cheers greet the start of 5 billion-mile voyage

Messenger: The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory serves as mission control for the first voyage to the planet Mercury in 31 years.

August 04, 2004|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

As he watched years of sweat and effort disappear into the night sky atop a trail of fire almost 800 miles away, Karl Fielhauer shouted at his video screen.

"C'mon baby, burn!" he yelled as Messenger, the first mission to the planet Mercury in 31 years. blasted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

The on-time liftoff of NASA's $426 million Messenger spacecraft early yesterday was greeted by whoops and cheers from Fielhauer -- the mission's lead radio engineer -- and dozens of colleagues in the mission control center at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab near Laurel.

Messenger was reported on course and working well yesterday. "Nothing to worry about," said flight controller Jeff Simmons.

The liftoff of the 1.2-ton spacecraft at 2:16 a.m., after bad weather forced a day's delay, was only the first reason for engineers at APL to cheer yesterday. The control room erupted again an hour later when the first radio telemetry from the spacecraft splashed columns of green numbers onto computer monitors around the room -- data that confirmed all was well on board.

"Radio science!" someone announced. "Data lock!" At that, APL test conductor Michael Paul erupted with a shrill "Woo hoo!"

As the morning went on, and more data arrived from space, it became clear the 7 1/2 -year, 5 billion-mile adventure was well under way. "It's in the bag," said APL's mission manager, Robert W. Farquhar.

But the scientists and engineers at APL and NASA still have years of work and uncertainty ahead of them. "Launching is only the beginning of the journey," Orlando Figueroa, NASA's director of solar system exploration, said in a statement released at Cape Canaveral.

Messenger won't go into orbit around Mercury until March 2011. Between now and then, the spacecraft will have to orbit the sun 15 times, fire its engine properly in as many as five course changes, and fly past Earth and Venus (twice) and Mercury (three times).

"This is truly a voyage of discovery," said Michael D. Griffin, head of the APL Space Department. "We hope to understand why Mercury formed as it did, why it's so different from the rest of the planets."

Messenger's instruments will send back photos of the entire planet -- only 45 percent of which was imaged by the last visitor, Mariner 10, in the mid-1970s. They also will analyze Mercury's surface geology, gravitation, magnetic field, the structure of its molten core, and sparse atmosphere.

"We're also going to have two flybys of Venus ... as well as sampling interplanetary space for 5 1/2 years on the ride there," Griffin said. "And, it's just a thrill to be doing something never done before."

Although Monday's scheduled launch was postponed 24 hours by a threat of lightning, the weather wasn't an issue yesterday.

As the 12-second launch window approached, the excitement in the control room was rising, and with 30 minutes to go, APL's mission operations manager Mark Holdridge -- a veteran of launches of three Hopkins-built spacecraft -- urged his team to settle down. "Let's take our stations and keep quiet," he said. "Things are going to happen real fast from here on out."

More people crowded in to watch. The noise diminished, and the countdown clock ran down to zero. And beyond.

A fearful chill went through the crowd. A video image of Messenger and its rocket showed nothing -- no burst of steam and smoke, no rocket's red glare, no liftoff. The countdown clock was now counting up, well beyond the mission's critical 12-second launch window. Many in the room felt a sudden chill. What was wrong?

"Video delay," someone said. Instantly, everyone realized that the rocket had taken off on schedule. But the video, delayed by transmission over the Internet, was lagging behind the countdown clock.

Amid sighs of relief, many in the room acknowledged their fleeting panic. "It was like, `What's going on?!'" said radio engineer Dipak Srinivasan.

The team wasn't out of the woods yet, however, and Farquhar refused to declare success. "Things go wrong all the time," he said.

When Messenger's telemetry finally began to come in an hour later -- relayed from radio antennas in Australia -- there was momentary glee. But soon the signal was lost again. The green numbers on monitors around the room turned gray. "NO DATA," they said.

A few minutes later, it was back. Messenger was slowly tumbling in space, and its radio signal was rolling in and out of contact with the ground.

APL's designers had equipped Messenger to detect and correct the problem -- to "de-tumble" on its own. And eventually, it did. The spacecraft was alive and well, and close to its planned trajectory.

"I think that the [course] errors are small, well within our capability to correct them," Farquhar said.

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