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The Messenger Probe Will Soon Crash Into Mercury

As NASA’s probe runs out of propellant, it will crash into the planet’s surface at 8,750 MPH

Mercury's Munch crater, as viewed by the MESSENGER probe. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)
smithsonian.com

NASA’s MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging probe—you probably know it as Messenger—has been going strong since it launched in 2004. It has traveled more than eight billion miles and collected hundreds of thousands of images, along with other data that have changed the way scientists think about Mercury. Now, the craft’s days are numbered—it’s running out of propellant and is expected to crash into the planet’s surface soon.

In a release, NASA notes that after five maneuvers intended to delay the probe’s impact into Mercury, the team “will finally declare the spacecraft out of propellant.” Out of gas and played upon by the gravitational push of the sun, Messenger will slam into the planet’s atmosphere at more than 8,750 miles per hour. It will be a spectacular end for the craft, which traveled for more than six years before it even reached its destination.

Over the years, the craft has orbited Mercury over 4,000 times. Its mission was even so successful that it was extended twice. But after over 1,400 days in orbit, it’s just about time to call it quits. The team estimates that the mission will go dark sometime on April 30.

For John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, it’s less an end than a beginning. “While spacecraft operations will end, we are celebrating MESSENGER as more than a successful mission,” he said in a release. “It’s the beginning of a longer journey to analyze the data that reveals all the scientific mysteries of Mercury.”

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