NASA’s MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft swung by Venus for the second time early this evening [5th June] for a gravity assist that shrank the radius of its orbit around the Sun, pulling it closer to Mercury. At nearly 15,000 miles per hour, this change in MESSENGER’s velocity is the largest of the mission
According to APL’s Eric Finnegan, MESSENGER systems engineer, the spacecraft’s approach geometry is similar to that for the first Mercury flyby, allowing — for the first time in flight — the craft’s seven instruments to be turned on and operated collectively in science-observing mode, just as they will be for Mercury. “Gathering approximately six gigabits of data, the spacecraft will take more than 630 images, as well as make other scientific observations over the next few days,” Finnegan said.
In the news article at the Planetary Society, here, we learn that, like New Horizons at Jupiter, MESSENGER is currently something of a fish out of water. Just as New Horizons was designed to operate on the inner fringe of the Kuiper Belt, where sunlight is a precious commodity, so MESSENGER is intended to orbit Mercury, bathed in intense radiation. Venus may be a little on the dark side as far as its cameras are concerned, so it remains to be seen how interesting any images MESSENGER returns from Venus will be, especially given that, with its dense, sepia clouds, Venus isn't exactly the most photogenic world in the first place.
Still, I'll be sure to let you know if any pretty pictures make their appearance...