By Associated Press
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) - NASA's Messenger spacecraft sped within 124 miles of Mercury on Monday, putting it on a course that will have it orbiting the solar system's innermost planet in three more years.
It was the first visit by a spacecraft to Mercury in three decades. The closest approach occurred a little after 2 p.m.; it took about 10 minutes for the radio signals to reach flight controllers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., who confirmed everything had gone according to plan.
"I haven't seen so many smiles around this place for a long time," said project scientist Ralph McNutt. "It's an incredibly upbeat, very happy situation. Everybody's really enjoying this moment."
Messenger needed a gravity assist from Mercury - this is the first of three fly-bys - in order to get into orbit around the planet in 2011. The spacecraft was launched in 2004.
The last time a spacecraft flew past Mercury was in 1975, by NASA's Mariner 10. This time, Messenger will provide views of the opposite side of the planet, never before seen by a spacecraft.
More than 1,200 images are expected to be beamed back. Data should begin arriving on Earth on Tuesday, McNutt said.