NASA’s Messenger probe has spent the last four years studying Mercury’s surface and now is about to meet its demise. The Messenger has been in use for over ten years, but NASA officials said today that it will crash into Mercury’s surface at about 3:30 p.m. Eastern today.
NASA gets mileage out of Messenger
Administrators with NASA never expected the Messenger spacecraft to last ten years, so the agency certainly got its money’s worth out of it. The mission was originally expected to last just a year, but scientists decided to keep utilizing the probe because it was still running well and kept sending back interesting information about the planet, according to Discovery News. It took six years for Messenger to reach orbit around Mercury.
The probe’s name is short for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, Geochemistry and Ranging. The reason Messenger will crash today is because it is running out of propellant. Once it runs out, the sun’s gravity will push the probe down into Mercury’s atmosphere. It will then crash into the plat at a speed of over 8,750 miles per hour, creating a crater that’s about 52 feet wide, according to Reuters. Scientists do not expect to be able to get any images from the crash.
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What NASA learned from Messenger
Over the years, NASA scientists have been able to build a detailed collection of information about Mercury and its surface. The probe’s most important finding, which was in 2012, was the discovery of a thick ice coating at the planet’s poles. This is particularly interesting because Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun and thus has an extremely hot surface.
NASA officials said the ice coating supports their belief that the planet has a lot of frozen water and “other volatile materials” in its polar craters, which are always in a shadow from the Sun. Scientists were able to begin to understand some of how the Sun’s inner planets, including Earth, collected water and began to acquire some of life’s chemical building blocks. They believe Mercury probably acquired its water when asteroids and comments crashed into it at some point.
Messenger also detected sulfur, potassium and a number of other elements on the surface of the hot planet. Scientists thought those elements would have evaporated because of how hot Mercury’s surface is, with an average temperature of 332 degrees Fahrenheit.
NASA will continue analyzing the information they received from Messengers for many more years.