What happened to the Mariner 10

40 years ago: Mariner 10 was the first spacecraft to reach Mercury

40 years ago today, on March 29, 1974, the American space probe Mariner 10 passed Mercury for the first time. This was the first time that a man-made spacecraft had reached the innermost planet of our solar system. Mariner 10 had previously passed Venus on February 5, 1974. According to NASA, the space probe was also the first to use the gravity of another planet for a swing-by maneuver to get to its destination.

Mariner 10 was launched from Cape Canaveral on November 3, 1973 aboard an Atlas Centaur missile. The primary aim of the mission was to explore the surface of Mercury and a possible atmosphere, which was not actually found. There was also a magnetometer on board, which also detected a weak magnetic field on the planet closest to the sun. The photos sent to Earth showed a moon-like surface, full of craters. This condition could not previously be recognized from the earth.

After the first encounter with Mercury, 705 km from the planet, Mariner 10 went into orbit around the sun. On this orbit, she met Mercury a second time on September 21, 1974, at a distance of 50,000 km, and for the third time on March 16, 1975 - she came within 375 km of the planet. About 45 percent of the surface of Mercury was recorded in a total of around 9,000 images.

After Mariner 10, only one other spacecraft has reached Mercury, and that is NASA's Messenger probe. It was launched in 2004 and performed several swing-by maneuvers on Earth and Venus before reaching Mercury for the first time (not to be confused with the prized Slingshot effect). After having passed the planet a total of three times, it swung into orbit, unlike its predecessor, and has been orbiting Mercury for three years. This mission, which has already delivered more than 200,000 photos, should run until at least March 2015. The probe explores Mercury with a total of seven instruments. (anw) / (mho)

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