I learned via Twitter this morning (from one of six master teachers who have been Tweeting to kids throughout the encounter) that MESSENGER went into safe mode just before closest approach -- I'm assuming at the time that that unexplained signal drop occurred. The teacher, Gene Gordon of New York, who Tweets as Porchdragon, reported that that means there was no science data gathered after closest approach, although approach imaging was unaffected. I'm sure we'll hear more about this later today, but here are some things to keep in mind
First, there's plenty of good news.
- The most important purpose of this flyby was the last gravity assist that'll allow MESSENGER to enter orbit in 2011. MESSENGER did not need to use thrusters during the flyby -- it was all gravity. So, since we know the targeting was perfect before the encounter, MESSENGER should still be on its way to orbit. That's the number one most important thing.
- For those of us who are fans of imaging, it was the approach imaging that included views of previously unseen territory, and that evidently got done. They just released a new pic (at the bottom of this post) from the wide-angle camera.
- They are talking to the spacecraft now, which is always a good thing. They haven't said anything about the spacecraft health yet, but it is talking to Earth, and it's returned science data, which indicates that it's not in a critical state of health.
I'm sure we'll hear more. In the meantime, here's that new image. And one thing to look out for in any later images they release: I noticed yesterday while fiddling around with the Solar System Simulator that Venus should be sitting there, a brilliant light in the background, in most of the wide-angle camera image shots of Mercury taken as MESSENGER approached.