Scientists say a final, fond farewell to the intrepid space probe, MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) as it crashes into Mercury. This probe was launched in 2006 with the goal of collecting in-depth data on the first planet from the sun. The valiant spacecraft has far outlived its original expected lifespan of one year. Having collected an additional four years worth of data, scientists were able to uncover the secrets of Mercury in more detail than ever before.
MESSENGER arrived at Mercury in 2011 and since then has completed over 3,000 orbits of the planet. Mercury’s orbit around the sun is very elliptical, and it’s been tough to keep MESSENGER’s trajectory up for so long.
"Pretty much all the instruments are still doing great, so that makes it a little harder for the craft," Jim Raines, a MESSENGER instrument scientist, told the BBC. The mission was always constrained by the amount of fuel needed to maintain such a difficult elliptical orbit—which ran out on April 24, 2015, thus signaling MESSENGER’s final countdown.
The final landing site will be on the side of Mercury closest to the sun. This means that we will never be able to contact MESSENGER again and will probably lose around 1,000 images of Mercury in the process.
The crater that will be produced in the aftermath of the crash is predicted to be around 16 meters (52 feet) wide. The impact of the three-meter-wide (10-foot-wide) spacecraft will be so powerful because Mercury has no substantial atmosphere to speak of. Space debris that falls through Earth’s atmosphere slows down as it burns up, often disintegrating before reaching the surface. On Mercury, MESSENGER will barely slow down and will impact at a speed of 3.91 kilometers per second (8,750 miles/hour).
Image credit: NASA / JHU APL/ CIW, via BBC.
Earlier this month, mission scientists released fresh images that superimposed years of spectrometry data about the chemistry of the planet's surface, illustrated in different colors, onto black-and-white images built up from thousands of smaller photos.
Even though this is a nostalgic time for scientists, it’s also a time to celebrate MESSENGER’s incredible contributions to space exploration. It has gathered 250,000 images of Mercury and ten terabytes worth of scientific measurements for scientists to sift through. It found evidence for the existence of water ice in the shadows of Mercury’s craters where the sun never shines and discovered that the magnetic field of Mercury is off-center. There was skepticism that MESSENGER would even make it to Mercury, let alone orbit the planet for four years.
Jim Raines added: "To be honest, I've seen this day coming for a long time and it's just one of these things that I've not been looking forward to. I'm really going to be sad to see it go."