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03-Aug-04 | Delta flight 307 – MESSENGER

MESSENGER is on its way to Mercury!

As the Terminal Countdown began at T-minus 150 minutes, it looked as if the strengthening T.S. Alex to the north would cause another delay, as a thunderstorm was lashing Cape Canaveral and drenching Pad 17B. But by the time of liquid oxygen loading, around T-minus 90 minutes, the moon was shining down and all the rules on the weather board had turned from red to green.

As was necessary due to the 12-second launch window, all events of the countdown occurred smoothly, and the third Delta II-Heavy lifted off at the very opening of the window, with an official first-motion time of 06:15:56.537 UTC. The first stage with its 9 booster motors, a pair of second stage burns, and the solid third-stage motor all fired in perfect succession, and 56m50s later the spacecraft was released into its proper trajectory. Contact was established, and MESSENGER reported its solar panels were deployed and it is in an excellent state of health.

MESSENGER will circle the Sun several times, using gravity assists from all of the three innermost planets, before reaching orbit around Mercury in March 2011, nearly seven years from now. If successful, it will become the first spacecraft to orbit the first rock from the Sun and will map the entire planet from an altitude of as little as a couple hundred kilometers. In the meantime, its first planetary encounter will be an Earth fly-by in August 2005.

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