NASA's Mercury-orbiting spacecraft, Messenger, is going out with a bang this week, adding a hefty crater to the little planet closest to the sun. The first spacecraft to circle Mercury, Messenger is expected to slip out of orbit and slam into Mercury on Thursday following a successful four-year tour of the rocky planet.
The spacecraft will be traveling 8,750 mph (14,081 kph) when it hits, fast enough to carve out a crater 52 feet (16 meters) wide. The spacecraft itself stretches 10 feet (3 meters) solar wingtip to wingtip. Messenger has run out of fuel, but ground controllers managed in recent weeks to eke out some extra life, raising Messenger's orbit by dipping into helium gas reserves not originally intended for use as fuel. But now that's all gone and Messenger is at the mercy of gravity. "I guess the end is coming," the Messenger team said via Twitter earlier this week. "After 10 years, spacecraft will end life as just another crater on Mercury's surface."
Messenger rocketed away from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in August 2004. It flew twice past Venus and three times past Mercury, before entering orbit around Mercury in March 2011. Only one other spacecraft, NASA's Mariner 10, has ever visited Mercury, and that was back in the 1970s.
- NASA's Messenger Mission Counts Down to April 30 Crash on Mercury
- Goodnight, Moon: Messenger Probe Tracks Lunar Eclipse from Mercury
- Painted Planet: Mercury's Surface May Be Darkened by Comet Dust
--- The Associated Press