Spacecraft crashes into planet
Spacecraft crashes into planet NASA's Messenger spacecraft is shown in this artist's rendering (Reuters)
Spacecraft crashes into planet
Lexile: 1250L

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The only spacecraft ever to orbit Mercury ended its four-year tour with a crash landing

NASA's Messenger plunged from orbit as planned and slammed into the sun's closest planet at about 8,750 mph, creating a crater an estimated 52 feet (16 meters) across.

Messenger became the first spacecraft to orbit hot, little Mercury, in 2011. It circled the solar system's innermost planet 4,105 times and collected more than 277,000 images.

"Today we bid a fond farewell to one of the most resilient and accomplished spacecraft ever to have explored our neighboring planets," lead scientist Sean Solomon said April 30. Solomon is director of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Solomon noted in a statement that Messenger set a record for planetary flybys once past Earth, twice past Venus and three times past Mercury before entering Mercury's orbit and survived "both punishing heat and extreme doses of radiation" to surpass expectations.

Flight controllers managed to keep the spacecraft going a few extra weeks by using helium gas not originally intended as fuel. But the gas tank finally emptied and gravity's relentless tug did Messenger in.

Mercury is the last of the rocky inner planets in our solar system also counting Mars and Venus to be littered by mankind.

Messenger's crash occurred on the side of Mercury facing away from Earth and telescopes. Several minutes passed before NASA received confirmation. Controllers received no signal from Messenger when it was supposed to be back in the coverage zone a sign that the spacecraft, measuring 10 feet solar wingtip to wingtip, had, indeed, succumbed to gravity.

"Well I guess it is time to say goodbye," the Messenger Twitter feed stated as the end drew near.

Then after the impact: "On behalf of Messenger, thank you all for your support. We will continue to update you on our great discoveries. We will miss it."

Astronomers who used Messenger to detect Mercury's frozen water-covered poles and significantly off-center magnetic field called it an end of an era. Other discoveries: volcanic deposits that are evidence of the planet's eruptive past, and noticeable global shrinkage.

"It has been an amazing journey of discovery," said the University of British Columbia's Catherine Johnson. She is a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute. Data analyses will continue for at least another year.

Messenger's $427 million mission began with a launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 2004. Johns Hopkins University handled everything for NASA.

Until Messenger, the only spacecraft to visit Mercury was NASA's Mariner 10 back in the 1970s. That was only a fly-by mission.

The Europeans and Japanese are teaming up for Mercury's next guests, a pair of satellites known as BepiColombo. They're scheduled for launch in 2017 and arrival in Mercury's orbit in 2024.

Critical thinking challenge: How could Messengers mission be considered a success if it ended in a crash?

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Assigned 11 times

  • jacobm-Che
    5/06/2015 - 01:48 p.m.

    its amazing that this spacecraft crashed into this planet and its also amazing how it got space is really cool and to know that something got to this planet even if it crash

  • ConnerC-Kut
    5/07/2015 - 07:36 a.m.

    I wouldn't really expect a little spacecraft to last 11 years in space orbiting Earth, Venus, and finally getting stuck in the gravity pull of Mercury while orbiting. I think the new BepiColombo satellite could be a success as well, capturing photos and making important observations. Hopefully it doesn't crash into a planet! We won't want millions of dollars to go down the drain.

  • zacharyhuyser.72
    5/07/2015 - 12:43 p.m.

    I find it interesting how humans have created the technology to send things to other planets. I have researched a bit and found it would take about 50 days to get to Mercury when traveling in a space shuttle moving 28,000 miles per hour. It is really cool that our technology is advanced enough to reach other planets and I wonder what will come to technology next.

  • caoilinncrotty53
    5/07/2015 - 12:56 p.m.

    NASA's MESSENGER spent 10 years in space. It was a risky mission that took the small satellite dangerously close to Mercury's surface. The spacecraft traveled 4.9 billion miles or 7.9 billion kilometers. The journey included 15 trips around the sun and fly bys of Earth once, Venus twice, and Mercury three times, before going into orbit then crashing.

  • dianaz-Che
    5/07/2015 - 01:56 p.m.

    I find it disappointing that the only spacecraft to ever orbit Mercury ended with a crash landing. It circled the solar system's innermost planet 4,105 times.

  • Logans-OBr
    5/07/2015 - 02:01 p.m.

    I think that it could be a success because all of the pictures it took and all of the things people can discover about Mercury! I think that it is pretty cool that they are sending more SpaceCrafts to Mercury in 2017. Did you know that Mercury is 48.5 million miles away from Earth? This trip takes a long time, and I would be really old by the time the spacecraft arrives (ha, ha).

    I still can't believe how far Mercury is. It must be hot there because it is 28.5 million miles from the sun. We are 92,960,000 miles from the sun. I wonder if the Europeans and the Japanese will agree to work together to send a couple of crafts. That would be pretty cool. I will probably set my background on my computer to a planet with all of the pictures they take! 1250L

  • KiraWvA-4
    5/07/2015 - 08:35 p.m.

    NASA's Messenger, a spacecraft that set a record for the most flybys (once past Earth, twice past Venus, and three times past Mercury) crashed on Mercury after four years, 4,105 orbits and many discoveries. Messenger helped astronomers detect Mercury's water covered poles, off-kilter magnetic field, volcanic deposits and global shrinkage. The mission cost 427 million dollars and featured a spacecraft that is only ten feet in diameter; it launched from Cape Canaveral in 2004, arrived at Mercury in 2011 and crashed at 8,750 mph on the surface. I think Messenger was an accomplished little spacecraft and it was well engineered and steered to have kept going and collecting information for more than ten years.

  • MaxG-4
    5/07/2015 - 10:16 p.m.

    This article is about a, whats is only described as a "spacecraft", after being the first to orbit mercury, and has done so since 2011 has crashed. It sent back a lot of pictures of Mercury and gave us insight into what it may look like there. It showed us the poles, and even had its own twitter feed. The project was 427 Million Dollars but unfortunately it was caught in the gravity and crashed.

  • Blaker-2
    5/08/2015 - 12:50 a.m.

    This article is about the Mercury's first and only satellite so far and how it crashed into the planet after a very successful four year mission taking about 277000 images of the planet. The satellite crashed on April 30th 2015 after orbiting the planet 4105 times. i thought that this was interesting because I thought that satellites usually last for longer.

  • TaylorHartman-Ste
    5/08/2015 - 01:30 p.m.

    This is pretty scary to know that this was even possible to happen. I thought that technology was so far advance nowadays that it would be completely impossible to have malfunctions.

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