Miles O’Brien on Mercury, Microscopic Martians and Hi-Tech Oven Mitts

BY Jenny Marder  March 16, 2011 at 5:00 PM EST

After its nearly seven-year voyage, NASA’s Messenger space capsule is expected to pull into orbit around our smaller, denser sister planet, Mercury, at 8:54 pm EST on Thursday. Once there, it will spend a year collecting data on the planet’s geology, atmosphere and magnetic field.

Science Correspondent Miles O’Brien reports on the mission on Wednesday’s NewsHour.

But first, as Messenger readied for orbital insertion, Miles briefed Hari Sreenivasan about the Mercury mission and NASA’s broader space travel itinerary, shaped by a recent report that ranked space mission priorities within a tight NASA budget. You can hear the interview here:

With so much in space to explore, why Mercury?

“We have not had a chance to measure much about its magnetic field, its wispy exosphere…and understand a little bit about the volcanic activity at the core of it,” Miles explains. “In the case of Mercury, it’s like a little time capsule. We can see what a planet was like at a certain stage, and probably what our planet looked like at a certain stage, and understand more about ourselves.”

Mercury’s orbit gets as close as 29 million miles from the sun, compared to the earth’s 93 million mile orbit. Translation: it’s scalding hot there. Miles details the mylar and ceramic material designed to shield the spacecraft from the planet’s temperatures, which peak at 840 degrees Fahrenheit.

“On this side, it can be in excess of 650 degrees,” he says. “Just on the other side of it: room temperature.

Also in the interview: other space missions ranking high on the wish list, including the search for microscopic Martians, and a subsurface ocean believed to exist on Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa.

And, Miles thinks up a possible business venture while describing Messenger’s mylar shield, created with the same material used for blankets on the space shuttle. Spacecraft-inspired oven mitts anyone? Stay tuned for those, and for Wednesday’s science report on the planet closest to the sun.

For more, watch excerpts from Miles’ interview with Steven Squyres of Cornell University, a Mars expert and chair of the commission that produced the Planetary Science Decadal Survey, released earlier this month.