NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft will end its mission in spectacular fashion by crashing into Mercury.
After more than 10 years in space, MESSENGER, short for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging, will end its mission on Thursday by crashing into Mercury, creating another impact crater on the planet’s scarred surface.
After running out of fuel necessary to keep it in orbit, NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft is expected to impact the closest planet to the sun at approximately 3:30 p.m. EDT on Thursday, April 30, 2015. The spacecraft will collide with Mercury traveling at 8,750 mph, creating an impact crater approximately 52 feet wide. The spacecraft will impact on the dark side of the planet.
MESSENGER, which has been in orbit around Mercury since 2011, has gone on to provide a wealth of data about the closest planet to the sun. Despite being one of Earth’s closest neighbors, little was known about the planet until MESSENGER arrived there.
“For the first time in history we now have real knowledge about the planet Mercury that shows it to be a fascinating world as part of our diverse solar system,” John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA said in a statement. “While spacecraft operations will end, we are celebrating MESSENGER as more than a successful mission. It’s the beginning of a longer journey to analyze the data that reveals all the scientific mysteries of Mercury.”
MESSENGER uncovered evidence of past volcanic activity, and that the planet has a liquid iron core. However, MESSENGER’s signature achievement is the discovery that the planet closest to the sun contains a significant amount of water ice. The frozen water, along with other volatile materials, is hidden inside permanently shadowed craters near the planet’s north pole.
MESSENGER became the first spacecraft to orbit the planet closest to the sun, and was only the second spacecraft to visit it. NASA’s Mariner 10 spacecraft was the first to perform a flyby of Mercury on March 29, 1974.
The Slooh Community Observatory will be providing live streams of the event. Slooh’s live stream begins at 3:00 p.m. EDT on Thursday, April 30. MESSENGER is expected to impact Mercury at approximately 3:30 p.m. EDT.
Update: The MESSENGER spacecraft impacted the surface of Mercury at 3:26 p.m. EDT.