As reported in the New York Times the NASA probe Messenger just performed a close fly-by of the elusive little planet closest to the sun, Mercury. There hasn’t been a mission that way since the mid-70s Mariner 10 program.
As an amateur astronomer, I always remember Mercury as characteristically elusive, whipping closely around the sun in only 88 days (that’s at 48 km per second, folks — zippy), and always spotted at those liminal points — at dusk or dawn. Thought that was completely fitting. The few times I caught the little fellow, it was by pure luck.
Mercury is also mentioned all the time in sci-fi, but a silly tale that always sticks in my mind is “Runaround” (1942), a short story in the robot series by the ever prolific Issac Asimov that eventually became I, Robot (1950). Very quirky story involving “if-then” kinds of concepts. As a setting, Mercury was appropriately hot, barren and uninhabitable. For some reason I also recall that H.P. Lovecraft placed an incarnation of the Great Race of Yith there, too. But I digress…
Interesting to see new images (these ones courtesy of Scientific American) of the planet, parts never before photographed. Eventually, in 2011, Messenger is going to settle into orbit around the mythological messenger. Perhaps Hermes will give up all his secrets? Doubtful — there’s something sly and ever-changing about that quicksilver orb, constantly battered by the solar winds. Occluded. And yet our unquenchable curiosity has to be satisfied. Mercury must be demystified.
A little sad, actually.