December 21, 2007

Case Western Reserve University planetary geologist part of NASA's Messenger mission to Mercury

Assistant professor in geological sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences to help lead collection, analysis of data

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NASA has selected Case Western Reserve University geophysicist Steven A. Hauck II as one of 23 "participating scientists" to join a team collecting and analyzing data from the MESSENGER mission to Mercury. MESSENGER, an autonomous spacecraft, is expected to reach the innermost planet in January.

Hauck, an assistant professor in geological sciences in the university's College of Arts and Sciences, is leading the six-year, $560,000 NASA-funded project. His research will use data from MESSENGER to refine information about Mercury's interior and how the planet has evolved. Andreas Ritzer, a doctoral graduate student, will also be involved in the project with Hauck.

"It's exciting to be involved in this project," Hauck said. "Data collected by MESSENGER will be critical to understanding how Mercury and terrestrial planets in general formed and evolved, and scientists will be studying these data for many years ahead."

As part of the project, Hauck has joined the mission science team that will guide the MESSENGER spacecraft's collection, calibration, initial analysis and archiving of data aimed at addressing major unanswered questions about Mercury's origin and history.

NASA launched MESSENGER, the seventh mission in NASA's Discovery Program, on August 3, 2004. Since launching, MESSENGER's trajectory has included flybys of Earth and Venus on its way to Mercury. In addition to the January flyby, MESSENGER will pass Mercury again next October and in September 2009 before it enters into orbit about the planet in March 2011.

Once in orbit, MESSENGER will make two complete trips around Mercury every one Earth day throughout the following year. The orbit is designed to be elliptical to allow for data collection close up and then to cool down from the heat it received near the surface further away from the planet. During the orbit's distant portion of the orbit, it will return data through NASA's Deep Space Network of radio dishes here on Earth.

It has been 33 years since NASA's Mariner 10 spacecraft captured the first closeup pictures and data from Mercury. Hauck said that mission returned images from about 45 percent of the surface in its three flybys of the planet. The results from Mariner 10 have left scientists with a series of unanswered questions about how Mercury's magnetic field is generated and how it attained its high ratio of metal to rock relative to the other planets.

NASA hopes data collected during the MESSENGER flybys and during its orbit around Mercury will help explain the origin of the planet's large bulk density, geologic history, structure of the core, magnetic field and composition of materials at its poles as well as in Mercury's extremely thin atmosphere.

MESSENGER is equipped with a variety of instruments, including a wide and narrow-angle camera; an infrared to ultraviolet spectrometer; X-ray, gamma-ray and neutron spectrometers to assess surface composition; a laser altimeter, as well as a magnetometer and plasma and charged-particles spectrometers. These instruments will collect information about the topography of Mercury’s surface, chemical composition, magnetic field, gravity and other information for unraveling Mercury's many enigmas.

Since watching the first shuttle launch as a child, Hauck has had a long-held desire to explore space. When MESSENGER makes its first flyby of Mercury on January 14, 2008, he will be among the first to see and study portions of Mercury previously unknown.

"The idea of exploring planets has always fascinated me and the opportunity to investigate a planet as unexplored as Mercury is exciting," he said.

During past research projects as a graduate student and postdoctoral fellow, Hauck has been involved in research related to the geology and geophysics of the inner planets of the solar system as well as Jupiter's icy moons. The overall MESSENGER mission to Mercury is led by Sean C. Solomon from the Carnegie Institution of Washington, who was Hauck's mentor during his postdoctoral fellowship there on work related to Mercury.

Learn more about the mission to Mercury.

For more information, contact Susan Griffith, 216-368-1004.

Posted by: Marsha Bragg, December 21, 2007 10:05 AM | News Topics: Collaborations/Partnerships, College of Arts and Sciences, Environment, Faculty, Faculty, Grants, HeadlinesMain, Provost Initiatives, Research, Science

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