The NASA Messenger spacecraft has been orbiting Mercury for four years. After collecting data, the probe is close to running out of fuel. The spacecraft is going to crash on the small planet’s surface at approximately 8,750 miles per hour.
Mission operators at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, have been performing a number of orbit corrections that will postpone the spacecraft’s inevitable crash.
The final controlled operations will take place next Friday, April 24.
“Following this last maneuver, we will finally declare the spacecraft out of propellant, as this maneuver will deplete nearly all of our remaining helium gas. At that point, the spacecraft will no longer be capable of fighting the downward push of the sun’s gravity,” Daniel O’Shaughnessy, mission systems engineer at APL, said in a press release. “”
The impact is expected to happen on April 30.Scientists are however hoping the new impact crater will offer them new insight into the planet.
“Having an impact crater, even a small one, whose origin date is known, will be an important clue,” said the mission’s principal investigator Sean Solomon, the director of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York.
The Messenger spacecraft was launched eleven years ago and was caught by the planet’s orbit on March 18, 2011.
While the probe’s mission may be ending soon, researchers are gathering up all they’ve learned about Mercury with the help pf the spacecraft. The data may even hold some information on the formation of life on Earth.
Mercury is the closest planet to the sun, where temperatures can peak at 800 degrees Fahrenheit. Craters from the tiny planet at the poles and lay permanently in shadow. In 2012, Messenger found evidence of water ice deposits and other chemical material trapped in those polar regions. It also discovered a dark layer on top of the ice, believed to be organic material.
Researchers believe those materials came to the planet much like Messenger will get there: by crashing.
“The water now stored in ice deposits in the permanently shadowed floors of impact craters at Mercury’s poles most likely was delivered to the innermost planet by the impacts of comets and volatile-rich asteroids. “Those same impacts also likely delivered the dark organic material,” Solomon said in a press release.
The evidence discovered by Messenger is supporting the theory that asteroids and comets are delivering ice and organic materials and could have been the source of life on Earth.
Image Source: Huffington Post