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Declassified US Spy Satellites Reveal Rare Look at Secret Cold War Space Program

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Twenty-five years after their top-secret, Cold War-era missions ended, two clandestine American satellite programs were declassified Saturday (Sept. 17) with the unveiling of three of the United States’ most closely guarded assets: the KH-7 GAMBIT, the KH-8 GAMBIT 3 and the KH-9 HEXAGON spy satellites.

The vintage National Reconnaissance Office satellites were displayed to the public Saturday in a one-day-only exhibit at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport, Va. The three spacecraft were the centerpiece of the NRO’s invitation-only, 50th Anniversary Gala celebration held at the center last evening.

Saturday’s spysat unveiling was attended by a number of jubilant NRO veterans who developed and refined the classified spacecraft and its components for decades in secret, finally able to show their wives and families what they actually did ‘at the office’ for so many years. Both of the newly declassified satellite systems, GAMBIT and HEXAGON, followed the U.S. military’s frontrunner spy satellite system CORONA, which was declassified in 1995.

This National Reconnaissance Office released graphic depicts the huge HEXAGON spy satellite, a Cold War era surveillance craft that flew reconnaissance missions from 1971 to 1986.

This National Reconnaissance Office released graphic depicts the huge HEXAGON spy satellite, a Cold War era surveillance craft that flew reconnaissance missions from 1971 to 1986. The bus-size satellites weighed 30,000 pounds and were 60 feet long.

Big spy satellites revealed

The KH-9 HEXAGON, often referred to by its popular nickname “Big Bird,” lived up to its legendary expectations. As large as a school bus, the KH-9 HEXAGON carried 60 miles of high resolution photographic film for space surveillance missions.

Military space historian Dwayne A. Day was exuberant after his first look at the KH-9 HEXAGON.

“This was some bad-ass technology,” Day told SPACE.com. “The Russians didn’t have anything like it.”

Day, co-editor of “Eye in the Sky: The Story of the CoronaSpy Satellites,” noted that “it took the Soviets on average five to 10 years to catch up during the Cold War, and in many cases they never really matched American capabilities.”

Phil Pressel, designer of the HEXAGON’s panoramic ‘optical bar’ imaging cameras, agreed with Day’s assessment.

“This is still the most complicated system we’ve ever put into orbit …Period.”

The HEXAGON’s twin optical bar panoramic mirror cameras rotated as the swept back and forth as the satellite flew over Earth, a process that intelligence officials referred to as “mowing the lawn.”

Phil Pressel, one of the developers of the KH-9 Hexagon's panoramic camera system, proudly points out some of the spacecraft's once highly-classified features, which he had been unable to discuss publicly until the NRO's Sept. 17, 2011 declassification.of

Phil Pressel, one of the developers of the KH-9 Hexagon’s panoramic camera system, proudly points out some of the spacecraft’s once highly-classified features, a life’s work that he had been unable to discuss publicly until the NRO’s Sept. 17, 2011 declassification of the massive spy satellite.

Each 6-inch wide frame of HEXAGON film capturing a wide swath of terrain covering 370 nautical miles — the distance from Cincinnati to Washington — on each pass over the former Soviet Union and China. The satellites had a resolution of about 2 to 3 feet (0.6 to nearly 1 meter), according to the NRO. [10 Ways the Government Watches You]

According to documents released by the NRO, each HEXAGON satellite mission lasted about 124 days, with the satellite launching four film return capsules that could send its photos back to Earth. An aircraft would catch the return capsule in mid-air by snagging its parachute following the canister’s re-entry.

In a fascinating footnote, the film bucket from the first KH-9 HEXAGON sank to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean in spring 1972 after Air Force recovery aircraft failed to snag the bucket’s parachute.

The film inside the protective bucket reported contained high resolution photographs of the Soviet Union’s submarine bases and missile silos. In a daredevil feat of clandestine ingenuity, the U.S. Navy’s Deep Submergence Vehicle Trieste II succeeded in grasping the bucket from a depth of 3 miles below the ocean.

Hubble vs. HEXAGON

Former International Space Station flight controller Rob Landis, now technical manager in the advanced projects office at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, drove more than three hours to see the veil lifted from these legendary spacecraft.

Landis, who also worked on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope program, noticed some distinct similarities between Hubble and the huge KH-9 HEXAGON reconnaissance satellite.

“I see a lot of Hubble heritage in this spacecraft, most notably in terms of spacecraft size,” Landis said. “Once the space shuttle design was settled upon, the design of Hubble — at the time it was called the Large Space Telescope — was set upon. I can imagine that there may have been a convergence or confluence of the designs. The Hubble’s primary mirror is 2.4 meters [7.9 feet] in diameter and the spacecraft is 14 feet in diameter. Both vehicles (KH-9 and Hubble) would fit into the shuttle’s cargo bay lengthwise, the KH-9 being longer than Hubble [60 feet]; both would also fit on a Titan-class launch vehicle.”

The ‘convergence or confluence’ theory was confirmed later in the day by a former spacecraft designer, who declined to be named but is familiar with both programs, who confided unequivocally: “The space shuttle’s payload bay was sized to accommodate the KH-9.”

The NRO launched 20 KH-9 HEXAGON satellites from California’s Vandenberg AFB from June 1971 to April 1986.

The HEXAGON’s final launch in April 1986 — just months after the space shuttle Challenger explosion — also met with disaster as the spy satellite’s Titan 34D booster erupted into a massive fireball just seconds after liftoff, crippling the NRO’s orbital reconnaissance capabilities for many months.

A side view of a KH-7 GAMBIT spy satellite on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport, Va., on Sept. 17, 2011.

A side view of a KH-7 GAMBIT spy satellite on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport, Va., on Sept. 17, 2011.

The spy satellite GAMBIT

Before the first HEXAGON spy satellite systems ever launched, the NRO’s GAMBIT series of reconnaissance craft flew several space missions aimed at providing surveillance over specific targets around the world.

The  satellite program’s initial system, GAMBIT 1, first launched in 1963 carrying a KH-7 camera system that included a “77-inch focal length camera for providing specific information on scientific and technical capabilities that threatened the nation,” according to an NRO description. A second GAMBIT satellite system, which first launched aboard GAMBIT 3 in 1966, included a175-inch focal length camera.

The GAMBIT 1 series satellite has a resolution similar to the HEXAGON series, about 2 to 3 feet, but the follow-up GAMBIT 3 system had an improved resolution of better than 2 feet, NRO documents reveal.

The GAMBIT satellite program was active from July 1963 to April 1984. Both satellites were huge and launched out of Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The satellite series’ initial version was 15 feet (4.5 m) long and 5 feet (1.5 m) wide, and weighed about 1,154 pounds (523 kilograms). The GAMBIT 3 satellite was the same width but longer, stretching nearly 29 feet (9 m) long, not counting its Agena D rocket upper stage. It weighed about 4,130 pounds (1,873 kg).

Unlike the follow-up HEXAGON satellites, the GAMBIT series were designed for extremely short missions.

The GAMBIT 1 craft had an average mission life of about 6 1/2 days. A total of 38 missions were launched, though 10 of them were deemed failures, according to NRO documents.

The GAMBIT 3 series satellites had missions that averaged about 31 days. In all, 54 of the satellites were launched, with four failures recorded.

Like the CORONA and HEXAGON programs, the GAMBIT series of satellites returned their film to Earth in re-entry capsules that were then snatched up by recovery aircraft. GAMBIT 1 carried about 3,000 feet (914 meters) of film, while GAMBIT 3 was packed with 12,241 feet (3,731 meters) of film, NRO records show.

The behemoth HEXAGON was launched with 60 miles (320,000 feet) of film!

A mission description of the NRO's GAMBIT 3 spy satellite flight profiles.

This image shows the flight profile for the NRO’s GAMBIT 3 spy satellite missions between 1966 and 1984. The program was declassified in Sept. 2011.

HEXAGON and GAMBIT 3 team up

During a media briefing, NRO officials confirmed to SPACE.com that the KH-8 GAMBIT 3 and KH-9 HEXAGON were later operated in tandem, teaming-up to photograph areas of military significance in both the former Soviet Union and China.

The KH-9 would image a wide swath of terrain, later scrutinized by imagery analysts on the ground for so-called ‘targets of opportunity.’ Once these potential targets were identified, a KH-8 would then be maneuvered to photograph the location in much higher resolution.

“During the era of these satellites — the GAMBIT and the HEXAGON — there was a Director of Central Intelligence committee known as the ‘Committee on Imagery Requirements and Exploitation’ that was responsible for that type of planning,” confirmed the NRO’s Robert McDonald, Director of the Center for the Study of National Reconnaissance.

NASA’s Rob Landis was both blunt and philosophical in his emotions over the declassification of the GAMBIT and HEXAGON programs.

“You have to give credit to leaders like President Eisenhower who had the vision to initiate reconnaissance spacecraft, beginning with the CORONA and Discoverer programs,” Landis said. “He was of the generation who wanted no more surprises, no more Pearl Harbors.”

“Frankly, I think that GAMBIT and HEXAGON helped prevent World War III.”

 

Via Space

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‘Super-Earth’ Found in Habitable Zone

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The Milky Way abounds with low-mass planets, including small, rocky ones such as Earth. That’s the main conclusion of a team of European astronomers, based on their latest haul of extrasolar planets. The new discoveries—55 new planets, including 19 “super-Earths”—were presented here today at the Extreme Solar Systems II conference by team leader Michel Mayor of the University of Geneva in Switzerland. “We find that 40% of all Sun-like stars are accompanied by at least one planet smaller than Saturn,” he says. The number of Earth-like planets is expected to be even higher.

The new planets were found with HARPS (High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher), an extremely sensitive instrument used to analyze starlight, mounted on the 3.6-meter telescope of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) at Cerro La Silla in northern Chile. HARPS detects the minute periodic wobbles of stars, caused by the gravity of orbiting planets. So far, HARPS has discovered 155 exoplanets, including two-thirds of all planets less massive than Neptune.

Of the 19 newly found super-Earths (exoplanets between a few and 10 times the mass of Earth), the most intriguing is HD 85512b, which weighs in at only 3.6 Earth masses. Its orbit lies in the habitable zone of its parent star, which means temperatures are just right for liquid water to exist on its surface, says Lisa Kaltenegger of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany. “We’re entering an incredibly exciting period in history.”

Meanwhile, scientists disagree about which technique offers the best chances of finding the first true “Earth analog”—an Earth-like planet orbiting in the habitable zone of its Sun-like star. (H85512b is too massive, and it’s star is too cool.) Mayor says HARPS might find this Holy Grail of exoplanet research within 5 years or so, after new upgrades to increase the instrument’s sensitivity. But planet hunter Geoffrey Marcy of the University of California, Berkeley, disagrees. NASA’s Kepler space telescope is “by far the best,” he says. “We will find them if they’re there, probably within the next 2 or 3 years.”

At the meeting, Kepler co-investigator Natalie Batalha of NASA’s Ames Research Center announced that the number of exoplanet candidates from the Kepler mission has increased by some 50% since last February, to 1781. Most are less than three times the size of the Earth. Kepler, launched in March 2009, finds planets by measuring the slight periodic dimming of their parent stars, when they happen to pass between the star and Earth.

No matter who finds the first Earth analog, the HARPS planets offer better prospects for detailed follow-up observations, Mayor says, because HARPS focuses on relatively nearby stars, while almost all Kepler stars are much farther away. For instance, ESO astronomer Markus Kissler-Patig predicts that the future 39.2-meter European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) should be able to directly image HD 85512b. Analyzing the starlight it reflects will provide important information about the planet’s atmospheric composition. “The E-ELT will be able to probe for biomarkers,” Kissler-Patig says, referring to chemicals thought to indicate the presence of life.

While ESO is planning more-sensitive planet-hunting instruments for its existing Very Large Telescope and for the future E-ELT, Kepler is facing an uncertain future. “Kepler’s goal of finding true Earth analogs can only be reached by extending the mission duration” past its planned operational lifetime of 3.5 years, Batalha says. In February 2012, NASA will decide on a possible mission extension. Marcy is optimistic. Kepler is so incredibly successful, he says, that it seems unlikely NASA will terminate the mission next year. “I’m sure NASA is wiser than that.”

 

Via ScienceNow

African volcano spied from space

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Robert Simmon, using EO-1 ALI data

The Nabro volcano has been erupting in the African nation of Eritrea since June 13. This image made with data from a NASA satellite is giving scientists one of their most detailed views of the remote, little-studied volcano.

A NASA satellite captured this spectacular false-color image of the Nabro volcano erupting in a remote region of the northeastern African country of Eritrea.

The bright red portions of the image indicate hot surfaces, NASA explains in an advisory. That’s why the hot volcanic ash spewing out of the volcano’s caldera glows red.

To the west of the ash cloud, portions of the lava flow are visible. The front edge is particularly hot, thus red. The speckled bits upstream in the lava flow are likely regions where the cool, hardened crust is splitting and exposing fluid lava as the flow advances.

The volcano is located in an isolated region of Eritrea near its border with Ethiopia. Scientists believe it began erupting on June 13. Ash from the volcano has disrupted flightsand cut short Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s recent trip to Africa.

Despite these impacts, scientists say they know very little about the volcano. When it was first detected, in fact, scientists thought it was the nearby Dubbi volcano. Imagery such as this photo from NASA’s Earth Observing-1 satellite acquired on June 24 is providing the most detailed look at the eruption to date.

 

Via MSNBC

Solstice Sun Storm May Spark Dazzling Northern Lights Today

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Norwegian photographer and skywatcher Terje Sorgjerd created an amazing video of the March 2011 auroras, or northern lights, which appear in this still from his project, entitiled "The Aurora.”

Norwegian photographer and skywatcher Terje Sorgjerd created an amazing video of the March 2011 auroras, or northern lights, which appear in this still from his project, entitiled “The Aurora.” CREDIT: Terje Sorgjerd

A wave of sun particles unleashed during a strong solar flare this week is arriving at Earth today (June 24) and could touch off a dazzling northern lights display, NASA officials say.

The solar storm occurred Tuesday, June 21, during Earth’s solstice, which marked the first day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere and the start of winter in the Southern Hemisphere.

The storm triggered a powerful explosion on the sun, called a coronal mass ejection, which sent a vast wave of solar particles directly at Earth at a speed of about 1.4 million mph (2.3 million kph). Those particles are now buffeting Earth’s magnetic field in interactions that could amplify the planet’s polar auroras, also known as the northern and southern lights.

“High-latitude sky watchers should be alert for auroras,” officials with NASA’s Goddard Space Center said in an update today.

Sun photo of June 21, 2011 solar storm and eruption

The SOHO sun observatory caught this view of a large solar flare and coronal mass ejection (top of sun) erupting from the sun’s surface early June, 21, 2011. CREDIT: SOHO/NASA/ESA

Supercharged auroras

Auroras occur when solar wind particles collide with atoms of oxygen and nitrogen in Earth’s upper atmosphere. The interaction excites the atoms, which then emit light (the aurora) as they return to their normal energy level.

Tuesday’s solar flare registered as a class C7.7 flare (C-class flares are the weakest types of flares), but lasted for several hours. There are three classes of solar flares. M-class solar flares are medium-strength flares, while the most intense solar storms register as X-class flares.

There is a 30 percent to 35 percent chance of a minor geomagnetic storm in Earth’s atmosphere today from this week’s storm, NASA officials said.

 

Partial Halo Coronal Mass Ejection

A broadly widening cloud of particles, observed by SOHO’s C3 coronagraph, rushed away from the Sun as a coronal mass ejection (CME) erupted over about 12 hours (June 14, 2011). Data from the Solar Dynamics Observatory shows an eruptive prominence breaking away from the Sun about where the event originated. While the originating event did not appear to be substantial, the particle cloud was pretty impressive. The bright circle with an extending horizontal line (above and left of the blue occulting disk) is a distortion caused by the brightness of planet Mercury. CREDIT: SOHO (ESA & NASA)

The active sun

This week’s solar flare was detected by the space-based Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) operated by NASA and the European Space Agency. It came just weeks after another strong solar flare on June 7, which unleashed a massive coronal mass ejection that stunned astronomers with its intensity.

The June 7 event  kicked up a wave of plasma that rained back down on the sun over an area 75 times the width of Earth. The leading edge of the particles that erupted from the sun were traveling at about 3.5 million mph (5.7 million kph), SOHO officials have said.

Another coronal mass ejection on June 14 unleashed an eerie wave of material that formed a partial halo as it expanded into space.

The most severe solar storms, when aimed at Earth, can pose a danger to astronauts in space, satellites and even ground-based communications and power systems. This week’s solar flare, however, is not powerful enough to pose a serious risk, NASA officials said.

The sun is currently in an active period of its 11-year solar cycle. NASA and other space and weather agencies are keeping a close watch on the sun using space-based observatories, satellites and ground-based monitoring systems.

 

Via Space

Ice spray shooting out of Saturn moon points to a giant ocean lurking beneath its surface

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Scientists have collected the strongest evidence yet that Saturn moon Enceladus has a large saltwater ocean lurking beneath its surface.

Samples of ice spray shooting out of the moon have been collected by the Nasa’s Cassini spacecraft during one of its frequent Saturn fly-bys.

The plumes shooting water vapor and tiny grains of ice into space were originally discovered emanating from Enceladus – one of 19 known moons of Saturn – by the Cassini spacecraft in 2005.

Samples of ice spray shooting out of Saturn moon Enceladus have been collected by Nasa's Cassini spacecraft. Scientists believe it is the strongest evidence yet that Enceladus has a large saltwater ocean lurking beneath its surface

Samples of ice spray shooting out of Saturn moon Enceladus have been collected by Nasa’s Cassini spacecraft. Scientists believe it is the strongest evidence yet that Enceladus has a large saltwater ocean lurking beneath its surface

They were originating from the so-called ‘tiger stripe’ surface fractures at the moon’s south pole and apparently have created the material for the faint E Ring that traces the orbit of Enceladus around Saturn.

During three of Cassini’s passes through the plume in 2008 and 2009, the Cosmic Dust Analyser (CDA) on board measured the composition of freshly ejected plume grains.

The icy particles hit the detector’s target at speeds of up to 11miles-per-second, instantly vaporising them. The CDA separated the constituents of the resulting vapor clouds, allowing scientists to analyse them.

The ice grains found further out from Enceladus are relatively small and mostly ice-poor, closely matching the composition of the E Ring. Closer to the moon, however, the Cassini observations indicate that relatively large, salt-rich grains dominate.

Lead researcher Frank Postberg, of the University of Heidelberg in Germany, said: ‘There currently is no plausible way to produce a steady outflow of salt-rich grains from solid ice across all the tiger stripes other than the salt water under Enceladus’ icy surface.’

Plumes, both large and small, spray water ice from multiple locations along the 'tiger stripes' near the south pole of Enceladus

Plumes, both large and small, spray water ice from multiple locations along the ‘tiger stripes’ near the south pole of Enceladus.

Co-author Sascha Kempf, of the University of Colorado Boulder, added: ‘The study indicates that “salt-poor” particles are being ejected from the underground ocean through cracks in the moon at a much higher speed than the larger, salt-rich particles.

‘The E Ring is made up predominately of such salt-poor grains, although we discovered that 99 per cent of the mass of the particles ejected by the plumes was made up of salt-rich grains, which was an unexpected finding.

‘Since the salt-rich particles were ejected at a lower speed than the salt-poor particles, they fell back onto the moon’s icy surface rather than making it to the E Ring.’

According to the researchers, the salt-rich particles have an ‘ocean-like’ composition that indicates most, if not all, of the expelled ice comes from the evaporation of liquid salt water rather than from the icy surface of the moon.

When salt water freezes slowly the salt is ‘squeezed out’, leaving pure water ice behind. If the plumes were coming from the surface ice, there should be very little salt in them, which was not the case, according to the research team.

Dwarfed: Enceladus can be seen near Saturn's south pole at the bottom of this image

Dwarfed: Enceladus can be seen near Saturn’s south pole at the bottom of this image

 The scientists believe that perhaps 50 miles beneath the surface crust of Enceladus a layer of water exists between the rocky core and the icy mantle that is kept in a liquid state by gravitationally driven tidal forces created by Saturn and several neighboring moons, as well as by heat generated by radioactive decay.

It is thought that roughly 440lbs of water vapor are lost every second from the plumes, along with smaller amounts of ice grains.

Calculations show the liquid ocean must have a sizable evaporating surface or it would easily freeze over, halting the formation of the plumes.

‘This study implies that nearly all of the matter in the Enceladus plumes originates from a saltwater ocean that has a very large evaporating surface,’ said Dr Kempf.

The team’s study is published in the journal Nature.

 

Via DailyMail

Asteroid Heading Near Earth

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asteroid-2011-md-earth-orbit-plane-june-27.jpg

NASA, which is not as busy scheduling space launches anymore, is focusing a great deal of energy on an asteroid about the size of a tour bus that is expected to make an extremely close pass by the Earth on Monday.

On June 27 the asteroid should fly 7,500 miles above the Earth’s surface. The asteroid, named 2011 MD, was discovered last Wednesday by a pair of roboti telescopes in New Mexico that constantly scan the skies. NASA estimates that an object this size comes this close to Earth on an average of every six years.

NASA said for several hours prior to its closest approach, 2011 MD will be visible in moderately large amateur telescopes.

Of the thousands of objects discovered by NASA, approximately 827 are asteroids with a diameter of approximately a half-mile or larger. They’re classified as Potential Hazardous Asteroid. NASA is planning to launch a probe to visit one of the dangerous objects before the asteroid makes its way near the Earth.

 

Via BoiseWeekly

Mercury’s origins may differ from sister planets

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Mercury’s origins may be very different from its sister planets, including Earth, based on early findings that show surprisingly rich deposits of sulfur on the ground, scientists said on Thursday.

Early findings from the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury is forcing scientists to rethink how the planet closest to the sun formed and what has happened to it over the past 4 billion years.

NASA’s Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging spacecraft — nicknamed Messenger — is three months into a planned year-long mission. It has also uncovered evidence of a lopsided magnetic field and regular bursts of electrons jetting through the magnetosphere.

“It’s almost a new planet because we’ve never had this kind of observatory before,” said lead researcher Sean Solomon of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C.

Volcanoes appear to have played a rather large role in shaping Mercury, providing fresh material to fill its cratered face, but also possibly providing an unexpected supply of sulfur to the surface, a finding that suggests Mercury may have had different building blocks than Venus, Earth and Mars.

Scientists expected that Mercury, which is believed to have formed in the hottest, densest part of the original solar nebula, wouldn’t have had the right temperatures to hang on to lighter-weight materials like sulfur.

“Elements like that are usually lost in space,” Solomon said. “The fact that we see sulfur from the surface points strongly that we had sulfur gases coming out.

“All of our simple ideas … a hot planet, easily depleted of volatiles … are not turning out to be the simple story we thought,” Solomon added.

New images from Messenger reveal a massive plain of ancient lava flow, the largest of which spans 400 million square kilometers, about half the size of the continental United States.

Another surprise was the planet’s lopsided magnetic field, which is stronger in the north than the south. Scientists can’t yet account for the asymmetry, but one theory is that the planet’s magnetic field is in the processing of flipping.

Mercury is the only terrestrial body besides Earth that has a magnetic field and one of the prime goals of the Messenger mission is to figure out how Mercury, which sports a massive iron core, was assembled. Scientists believe Mercury’s core, like Earth’s, is responsible for generating its magnetic field

Messenger also has been monitoring regular outbursts of electrons in Mercury’s magnetosphere. Hints of the phenomenon were first detected by NASA’s Mariner 10 probe, which flew past Mercury in 1974.

“We’re seeing these seeing these very dynamic phenomena in the magnetosphere. It’s very surprising and energetic,” Solomon said.

Still to come: measurements to reveal if Mercury hides ice insides its permanently shadowed craters.

 

Via DiscoveryOn