Today, NASA’s Messenger spacecraft will be making its final round as it circles Mercury before crash landing into its surface. This marks the end of quite a successful run for the unmanned space vehicle.
The Messenger spacecraft – or Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging vehicle – has seen a lot of turbulence while exploring Mercury. And, if one is to ask NASA missions operation manager Andy Calloway, Messenger has done everything expected out of it, and then some. “It’s been such a reliable, durable little spacecraft—just doing everything we’ve ever asked of it,” he said. Messenger had first launched in August 2004, but only reached Mercury’s orbit in March 2011.
But what exactly will be happening when Messenger crash lands later on today, ending its 11-year mission with a literal bang? For starters, the spacecraft will be traveling at close to 9,000 mph, which is three times faster than a speeding bullet and almost twelve times the speed of sound. The crater the craft will leave near Mercury’s north pole is predicted to be about 50 feet wide. That’s the width of an NBA basketball court,” said Messenger team member Jim Raines.
As for the reason why Messenger is crash landing instead of returning to planet Earth, it’s actually quite simple – the spacecraft has ran out of fuel. According to University of Colorado senior research scientist William McClintock, Messenger is now skimming Mercury’s surface, which means “it could crash onto (the planet’s) surface or run into towering cliff-like features known as scarps,” or evidences of Mercury’s contraction as the planet cooled.
Regardless of how Messenger will be ending its 11-year run, most agree that it’s going to be a sad event. “To be honest, it’s going to be sad,” Raines added. “I’ve been in charge of watching to make sure it’s okay on a day-to-day basis since 2006, so for almost 10 years. It’s going to be strange when I don’t have to do that anymore.”