We’ve Landed on Mercury! And by ‘Landed’ I mean ‘Smashed Into’

Okay so even though it is technically the first ever Earth-borne object to ever touch the surface of Mercury, it isn’t as hopeful as one might expect from the planet’s best and brightest scientists.  But in all fairness we have crash landed on Mars, the Moon, and into the clouds of Jupiter, so it’s not uncommon.  The Messenger spacecraft has been in space since 2004, orbiting the Sun multiple times in order to arrive at Mercury in 2008.  Since then it has completed 4,103 orbits and obtained an incredible amount of scientific data as the first ever space probe to orbit the small innermost planet.

False colour images of Mercury in light ranging from infrared to ultraviolet, showing striking surface features. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

The crash is set to occur simply because the craft has run out of the rocket fuel needed to keep it in orbit.  Without the ability to change its momentum the orbit has slowly degraded and brought the craft to a 14,000 km/hr collision with the surface, leaving a 52 foot wide crater.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

“Operating a spacecraft in orbit about Mercury, where the probe is exposed to punishing heat from the Sun and the planet’s dayside surface as well as the harsh radiation environment of the inner heliosphere (Sun’s sphere of influence), would be challenge enough,” said Sean Solomon, MESSENGER principal investigator. “But MESSENGER’s mission design, navigation, engineering, and spacecraft operations teams have fought off the relentless action of solar gravity, made the most of every usable gram of propellant, and devised novel ways to modify the spacecraft trajectory never before accomplished in deep space.”

If you want to check out the amazing science done by MESSENGER, check out the top 10 list here.

 

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