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The first fly-by of Mercury has thrilled the international team of space scientists who have waited 30 years for their virtual return to the smallest and nearest planet to the sun.Completing the first leg of a 2 billion-mile trip, featuring a gravity boost from Venus, the MESSENGER spacecraft zipped past its destination this month, snapping pictures and grabbing data.It was the first of three fly-bys for NASA’s MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft that will slow the trajectory down and drop it into a long-term orbit two years from now.“This fly-by allowed us to see a part of the planet never before viewed by spacecraft, and our little craft has returned a gold mine of exciting data,” said Sean Solomon, MESSENGER’s principal investigator of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C. In an announcement, he said, “From the perspectives of spacecraft performance and maneuver accuracy, this encounter was near-perfect, and we are delighted that all of the science data are now on the ground.”Much of the excitement had to do with new geological information and the discovery that the planet’s magnetic field had changed since it was last measured.Instrument scientist David Lawrence, now retired from Los Alamos National Laboratory, will continue to work on the project with the Applied
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