Throughout 2015, I’ll be exploring the Solar System in a series of articles both here at SciFi Ideas and on my own blog. In previous posts, we visited the Sun. Today, we begin our exploration of the planet Mercury.
Let’s start with a few basic facts that pretty much everyone knows. Mercury is the smallest planet in the Solar System (unless you insist on calling Pluto a planet). Mercury is the planet closest to the Sun. Mercury is one of the coldest places in the Solar System.
While it’s true that the dayside of Mercury is scorching hot (800 degrees Fahrenheit), the temperature on the night side can drop as low as -300 degrees Fahrenheit. The reason for this enormous temperature discrepancy is Mercury’s lack of an atmosphere. Atmospheres enable planets to trap and redistribute heat, maintaining a relatively constant global temperature. Planets without atmospheres (like Mercury) cook on one side and freeze on the other.
In several recent posts, I’ve said that nobody wants to live on Mercury. It’s too hot. It’s also too cold, and there’s no air, et cetera, et cetera. But apparently some people do want to colonize Mercury. If you’re one of them, your first obstacle is getting there.
Getting to Mercury
Only two spacecraft have ever visited the First Rock from the Sun, and the process of getting there was not exactly straightforward. (Get it! No? You will in a minute.) The problem is the Sun.
The Sun is massive, and so is its gravity. By comparison, Mercury’s gravity is minuscule, so trying to achieve Mercurial orbit requires guts, pinpoint accuracy, and a little unconventional thinking.
The MESSENGER spacecraft did it by taking an indirect course through the inner Solar System. It looped past Earth once, Venus twice, and Mercury three times before settling into a safe planetary orbit.
This long, spiraling voyage took six years. A trip to Pluto would take just as long even though Pluto is five times farther away.
Barring some ginormous advances in anti-gravity technology, any effort to colonize Mercury would most likely have to follow MESSENGER’s convoluted path to get there.
Of course, living on Mercury presents a whole other set of challenges. More on that in next week’s post.
Written by James Pailly.
Visit James Pailly’s blog – Planet Pailly – for more articles about Mercury and the Solar System.