Space

NASA'S MESSENGER mission finishes with a bang

Artist's impression of MESSENGER in orbit around Mercury (Image: NASA, JHU, APL, Carnegie Institution of Washington)
Artist's impression of MESSENGER in orbit around Mercury (Image: NASA, JHU, APL, Carnegie Institution of Washington)
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Artist's impression of MESSENGER in orbit around Mercury (Image: NASA, JHU, APL, Carnegie Institution of Washington)
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Artist's impression of MESSENGER in orbit around Mercury (Image: NASA, JHU, APL, Carnegie Institution of Washington)
NASA Graphics displaying predictions of the spacecraft's impact region (Image: NASA, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laborator, Carnegie Institution of Washington)
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NASA Graphics displaying predictions of the spacecraft's impact region (Image: NASA, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laborator, Carnegie Institution of Washington)

NASA'S MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft has ended its phenomenally successful mission in the most fitting manner imaginable. The probe, which had maintained a lonely vigil over the desolate planet for more than four years, smashed into the surface of Mercury, the planet that had surrendered countless secrets to the robotic explorer this Thursday at 3:26:02 pm EDT.

One would struggle to define the MESSENGER mission as anything less than a resounding success. Over the course of its time in orbit around Mercury, the probe has granted us innumerable insights into the characteristics of the barren planet, including its composition, structure, and the nature of its magnetosphere.

All of this was achieved under the protection of what was at the time of launch a cutting-edge Sunshade, which, for 4,104 orbits, fended away solar radiation that would have otherwise made short work of the delicate equipment stored within the spacecraft.

NASA Graphics displaying predictions of the spacecraft's impact region (Image: NASA, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laborator, Carnegie Institution of Washington)
NASA Graphics displaying predictions of the spacecraft's impact region (Image: NASA, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laborator, Carnegie Institution of Washington)

But having exhausted its supply of propellent, and left to the whim of solar gravity, the spent probe had no choice but to end its watch. At the time of colliding with Mercury, the spacecraft was on the far side of the planet relative to Earth. This meant that the team members, who had spent years of their lives administering to the probe, where unable to follow its final descent. However, they will undoubtedly be comforted by the wealth of information, and over 270,000 images that MESSENGER had collected over the course of its operational life.

MESSENGER's final resting place is now marked by a crater 16 m SG in diameter, formed as the spacecraft crashed into the surface of Mercury at speeds exceeding 8,700 mph (14,000 km/h) – not a bad way to go.

Source: NASA

2 comments
The Skud
All that time and effort and nobody thought far enough ahead to make sure the bl**dy thing landed on the correct side of the planet? I'm sure amateur astronomers the world over - as well as the professional team involved - would have loved to view that impact, but the moment of opportunity is lost forever.
Sciup
While MESSENGER’s scientific impact was huge, its physical mass was tiny. Even if it had hit the planet on the side of the planet visible to earth, its impact was too small to be visible from Earth. Its final resting spot was determined by the engineering and science team working together to extend the length of the mission and optimize the flight path to allow gathering of the most important data. BTW, the mission was supposed to have ended three years ago. But the engineering team managed to squeeze many additional orbits and huge amounts of data gathering from the spacecraft and its instruments. The last few orbital corrections were done after all the propellant had been used up: the team was able to keep the craft aloft using the wisps of helium compressant left in the tanks—like the few spritzes of gas left in an empty can of whipped cream. It’s the first time that’s ever been done.