• Choose a month

  • Rapt in Awe

    My Journey through the Astronomical Year

    Think of this as a "companion text" to this, the main web site. Not required reading, butI hope you'll find it interesting and helpful.

Building MESSENGER – the Model

NASA provides a neat little model you can make of the MESSENGER spacecraft by simply printing out the directions and doing a little cutting and folding. You can download it here. And if you have the energy and time, you can build a more sophisticated version by downloading this.

If all goes well, MESSENGER will become the first spacecraft ever to go in orbit about the planet Mercury. It will do so on March 17, 2011.  You can read all about MESSENGER – and how to see Mercury yourself  in March of 2011 –  by going to our March “Events” post.

Here are step-by-step photos of building the first – and simpler – of the two  MESSENGER models.  We’ve added a simple way to effectively display your work.


  • scissors
  • paper glue (we used rubber cement)
  • model knife (optional)


  • 4 sheets of paper – we used  24lb
  • a couple coffee storrers,  pipe cleaners, or something similar (most straws are too big around)
  • short length of  black thread
  • small piece of clear tape
  • paper clip

Building time is about 30-40 minutes.)


1. Assuming you have printed out the sheets, cut out the spacecraft body. (Click on any image to view a larger version.)

2. Cut out the three white circles (indicated by arrows) on the spacecraft body. I found a model knife was best for this. (You can actually do this as the first step – but in any event do it before folding.)

3. Fold along white lines to make the box-like body.

4. Put fast-drying glue on the edges of the folds.

5. Finish spacecraft body and set aside to dry.  Cut out the gold spacecraft sunshade.

6. Fold and  glue sunshade together with color side out.

7. Cut out the strip labeled “bridge,” fold lengthwise, and glue together, color side out.  Set aside to dry.

8. Cut out solar panels.

9. Fold, but do not glue together until you have noted the position the boom (coffee stirrer) will be inserted, This is marked by dotted lines on the dark side of the solar panels.

10. Put glue onthe inside being careful to leave the area marked by the dotted lines free of glue. (A tad tricky, since the lines are on  he other side.)

11.Fold the bridge along the dotted lines and glue one side of it to the spacecraft body in rectangle outlined on it.

12. Put glue on the taps of the bridge, then glue the sunshade to it. Set aside to dry.

13. We found that it was difficult to simply stick the boom into the slots left for them in the solar panels, but these slots were easy to open with any sharp object,. We used a toothpick to do the job.

14. We mounted one solar panel tot he boom,t hen slid the boom through the wholes in the spacecraft body.  We did not glue the solar panels as they seemed to fit tightly enough.

15. Here’s the almost finished spacecraft before  folding the sunshade to give it an arched shape and adding the thread and paper-clip hook to display it. Note the solar panels and gold side of the sunshade are pointed in the same direction – which would be towards the Sun with the instruments aimed at Mercury.

16. Ooops – alomost forgot the boom. Didn’t have a straw, or stirrer as recommended, so we used a pipe cleaner, cut down to size. We also folded the sunshade into a gentle arch that looks more like the pictures of the craft.  However, we found it awkward to display  the spacecraft properly by just sitting it down on something.  So we added a piece of black thread to the top, center edge of the sunshade with clear tape. On the other end I tied a paperclip , bent into a hook to make an easy hanger.  Here’s the thread taped to the sunshade.

17. And here’s the finished model, dangling under the lamp over the dining room table – a fitting. space age centerpiece for March, 2011! Hey – it’s a space craft. It’s not supposed to sit on the table. it’s supposed to be out there flying.

Looking at this  little modest model gives me pause . I try to develop a sense – in myself and in my visitors to Driftway Observatory – of the incredible emptiness of space by having one person hold a soccer ball representing our Sun while another visitor holds a 2mm glass bead representing our Earth.  On this scale Mercury would be less than 1mm in diameter – barely visible even when in your hand.  But I ask the person with the bead to hold it at what they think is the correct distance from the Sun. Usually they guess this to be a foot or two away – sometimes boldly they move several feet away. But no one guesses the correct answer, which is about 75 feet away. Now think of that. A 2mm bead – Earth – out at 75 feet from our soccer ball Sun!   Another 2mm bead – Venus – would be placed at about 54 feet out from the Sun.  And then a third, tiny Mercury – at roughly 29 feet.

And now try to imagine how tiny the real MESSENGER  spacecraft – roughly the size of a table – would have to be made to fit into this scale model! Then close your eyes picture the MESSENGER entering this vast, empty interplanetary ocean  and traveling for seven years in that emptiness, then arriving at just the right spot and just the right time, to be placed in orbit.  This vital little craft with its complex instruments going all that distance – almost 5 billion miles in total at speeds that sometimes exceeded 140,000 miles an hour.  (To put that in perspective, the fastest rifle bullet goes about 2,700 miles an hour and our Apollo astronauts traveled about 25,000 miles an hour during part of their lunar journey.

And all around Messenger is just about nothing except for a hostile emptiness and the incredible heat of our Sun as it moves in close.  Awesome! Just plain awesome. Three cheers for little MESSENGER – and three cheers for us – a species that dares to challenge the hsotile vastness of space, and send it’s robot silicon  and ceramic envoys on a mission of exploration for new knowledge.

One Response

  1. Thanks Greg,
    Extremely clear instructions to build Messenger.

    When I look up at the sky and see all those stars, it is easy to forget the vast emptiness in our own solar system with the little planetary balls spinning around at great speeds.

    Amazing indeed what Messenger is doing! And three cheers indeed for the humans who can create such a sophisticated spacecraft to have a rendez-vous with a distant planet!

    Thank you for awakening in me the wonder of it all!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: