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Classroom Discussion Activity

Messenger Mission to Mercury

The MESSENGER orbiter’s January 2008 flyby of the planet Mercury was historic. The last time a spacecraft visited  was 1975, and it only mapped half the planet. MESSENGER is now sending back a complete picture of Mercury, shedding light on its geological history. But the ongoing mission will return much more than images. Its data on the planet’s core, magnetic field, composition, and other attributes will help scientists answer pressing questions about the evolution of the terrestrial planets and even the Solar System itself. In the feature video, watch the MESSENGER science team react as the orbiter’s first images of Mercury roll in.
research activity

Establish prior Knowledge
Explain to students that the Mercury MESSENGER is a spacecraft that was launched in 2004 and has taken a 2 billion mile journey to Mercury. MESSENGER is sending back data that will help scientists begin to formulate hypotheses about this terrestrial planet. Before watching the video discuss with students the various methods scientists use to formulate hypotheses with data obtained by: observation —collecting observational data in the field; experimentation — designing and conducting a controlled experiment, and then collecting data from the experiment; and modeling —constructing and running/implementing a computer model using known information and physical laws, and then collecting data by running the model.

Ask students to take notes while they are watching the video. Ask them to identify some of the questions scientists are exploring about Mercury, and the techniques they are using to gather data. Then have students read the synopsis and watch the video. After watching the video, have students break up into smaller groups. Provide each group with one of these questions to research.

• Why is Mercury so dense?
• What is the geologic history of Mercury?
• What is the nature of Mercury’s magnetic field?
• What is the structure of Mercury’s core?
• What are the unusual materials at Mercury’s poles?
• What volatiles are important at Mercury?

When groups have finished have them present the results of their research. Ask them to describe the hypothesis scientists.