Mercury space probe blasts off

The spacecraft safely blasted off aboard a massive Delta II rocket at about 2.16am local time.

Minutes after it took off, the Delta rocket released the refrigerator-sized probe on the first leg of its 7.9-billion-kilometre odyssey through the solar system.

The launch was delayed by one day due to strong winds created by a tropical storm churning in the Atlantic Ocean.

“Tropical Storm Alex is no longer an influence on weather in the Cape Canaveral vicinity,” said Kennedy Space Centre spokesman George Diller shortly before launch.

It is the first US mission to Mercury for more than 30 years, after Mariner 10 sailed past the planet three times in 1974 and 1975.

The probe is to arrive at Mercury in 2011, and will orbit the planet for a year to explore its atmosphere, composition and structure.

It will try to tack questions left unanswered by the Mariner mission, which was able to gather data only on a portion of the planet’s surface, due to technology available at the time.

One of the most enigmatic planets of the solar system, Mercury endures more solar radiation than any other planet and scientists say it has one of the densest crusts of all planets.

Messenger is packed with state-of-the-art technological marvels, including a colour imager and a vast array of spectrometers capable of bombarding the Mercury surface with gamma- and X-rays and neutrons, laser beams and measure its magnetic fields.

Mercury is one of the least-explored of the planets closer to the Sun.

The probe’s journey will include a flyby of Earth, two of Venus and three of Mercury before slipping into the planet’s orbit.

“I say we are long overdue for another visit with some permanence to help us unveil the secrets of this planet, the innermost and least understood of the terrestrial planets,” said Orlando Figueroa, director of Nasa’s solar system exploration division.

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