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Tuesday, 22 March 2011

image for Messenger sends back first Mercury photos
Why Farrokh Bulsara called himself Freddie Mercury is still a mystery

NASA's Mercury Messenger Probe has finally achieved insertion around the planet Mercury, one of the most hostile environments in the solar system.

Messenger is one of NASA's usual attempts at an acronym: MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging. It should have been called MSSEGAR.

The probe has taken twelve years to reach Mercury due to the incredible gravity of the sun this close in forcing the probe to make several swings past before attaining orbit.

"To be honest," said Professor Dee Hidreight lead astrophysicist on the mission, "we'd forgotten all about it until my iPhone App Mercury Messenger started bleeping and showing me pictures of a big slab of rock."

A messenger took messages to the Messenger team and they reconvened back at JPL's San Antonio headquarters.

"Mercury is the planet that showed the Isaac Newton had got the laws of gravity ever so slightly wrong," said Hidreight. "You may have seen that on the rather good Brian Cox show. Einstein rewrote them and became very famous off the back of it. We expect that we'll be able to learn an awful lot about gravity, planetary formation and just why Farrokh Bulsara chose Mercury for a surname."

After billions of dollars, the probe's insertion in orbit around the solar system's faster planet, with full deployment of ceramic heat shield and solar panels, pictures of the surface and telemetry data have started pouring into the JPL computers. The Messenger team are quite pleased that the probe found the right planet, as it had been touch and go that it might mistake the Moon for Mercury.

"The pictures are pretty," said Hidreight, "but ultimately only for using on posters and websites. We can see the place quite well using an ordinary telescope, although we have to look when it is at the side of the sun. Blind Hugh learned that lesson."

And what has the team learned so far? "We've so far learned that the planet is still made of rock but appears to have water on it, unless the water detector is fogged up. Again. Mercury is very hot. There's no mercury there. And...um."

It is expected that more interesting data will be forthcoming over the two year mission, although half of the cost of the mission has been recouped in sales of posters and video footage to television companies under NASAs new merchandising program.

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The story above is a satire or parody. It is entirely fictitious.

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