FIPS, the Fast Imaging Plasma Spectrometer, is an instrument aboard Mercury MESSENGER, a spacecraft launched on August 3, 2004 -- the first mission to Mercury since Mariner 10 in 1975. MESSENGER will study the characteristics and environment of Mercury from orbit. FIPS will have two functions: first is to analyze ions liberated from Mercury's surface by solar winds; second, to analyze solar winds.
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MESSENGER returned to Earth for a gravity assist on August 2, 2005. The craft then headed toward the first of two Venus flybys. The first occurred on October 24, 2006, when the spacecraft approached the planet from its dayside. MESSENGER flew past a mostly sunlit Venus on June 5, 2007.
The Mercury flybys on January 14, 2008, October 6, 2008, and September 29, 2009, provided the first close-up look at Mercury in more than 30 years. On all three flybys, the spacecraft acquired sunlit views of the planet, taking pictures of the regions that Mariner 10 didn't see. Those flybys have been invaluable in formulating strategies for MESSENGER's observations of Mercury during a historic yearlong orbit mission that will begin in March 2011.
MESSENGER's journey requires several trajectory correction maneuvers. Meanwhile FIPS is keeping engineers busy, particularly Thomas Zurbuchen, a professor of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences at the University of Michigan. Zurbuchen, the FIPS team leader, explains the project in this video.
For more information refer to the MESSENGER website or either of the group's two websites: one, two.
Visit the FIPS project page.
Why Mercury? Because it's the key to terrestrial planet evolution.
Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars are terrestrial (rocky) planets. Among these, Mercury is an extreme: the smallest, the densest (after correcting for self-compression), the one with the oldest surface, the one with the largest daily variations in surface temperature, and the least explored. Understanding this "end member" among the terrestrial planets is crucial to developing a better understanding of how the planets in our Solar System formed and evolved. To develop this understanding, the MESSENGER mission, spacecraft and science instruments are focused on answering six key outstanding questions that will allow us to understand Mercury as a planet. For additional, detailed information about the driving science questions of the MESSENGER mission, check out some of the articles on the MESSENGER site.
Learn more about MESSENGER at http://www.engin.umich.edu/newscenter/feature/mercury.