With no more fuel to maintain its orbit, NASA announced that its valuable MESSENGER probe will crash into Mercury later this month. The MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging probe was launched in 2004, reaching the orbit of Mercury on April 4, 2011.
History of the Messenger Probe
Designed to be a one year mission, the MESSENGER probe has maintained its orbit, gathering data on the first planet from the Sun to discover how it formed and evolved. When MESSENGER ran out of fuel, scientists found a way to give the probe six more weeks by venting helium that is used to pressurize its fuel tanks, giving it more altitude.
Mission Systems Engineer Daniel O’Shaughnessy said in a statement that on April 24, MESSENGER will use its last boost of helium, giving the probe six more days before the Sun’s gravity pulls it toward Mercury’s surface during a rotation. The probe will careen down to the surface at nearly 9,000 miles an hour, smashing into Mercury and making a visible crater. The spectacular fall, O’Shaughnessy noted, will not be in view. Occuring on April 30, at about 3:25 p.m. eastern time, MESSENGER will be on the side of Mercury facing away from Earth.
Yet, even in death, the probe will still fulfill its duty and provide vital data with the crater it makes. With a fresh crater, scientists will be able to see how quickly craters erode and become covered up by space weather.
MESSENGER has orbited Mercury 4,000 times, with its mission plan extended twice. The probe has been the main source of data for scientists to discover Mercury’s makeup and past. For example, MESSENGER provided detailed photographs of Mercury that showed a wrinkled upper crust, suggesting that the planet’s diameter had been 6.8 miles bigger while it was molten, but rapid cooling squeezed and pulled the planet down into its current form, which also abruptly choked off volcanic activity and further evolution of the planet. Through MESSENGER, scientists also found that, despite being so close to the Sun and its surface reaching temperatures of 800° Fahrenheit, Mercury’s north pole was capped with ice, due to the planet having virtually no axial tilt.
The Messenger Probe has revealed a few mysteries of space. With advances in space technology, the sky is the limit. For now, flight is a substitute option: