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

  • SydneyL-Kut
    5/09/2015 - 09:01 p.m.

    Messenger's mission was a success even though it crashed, because it got information. Scientists knew that messenger was going to crash eventually, or else they would have figured out a way to get it back to Earth after a few years. So, they made it so that the information and pictures it gathered got back to Earth. That way Messenger's mission would be a success even though it crashed.

  • LOlivia-Cas
    5/11/2015 - 09:29 a.m.

    It's shame that the craft crashed into the planet. But NASA got a lot of valuable information that they'll be able to study for years and will hopefully gain more insight on the planet from these images. Hopefully the new satellites, when launched and brought into orbit, will gather even more and wonderful information on the planet in years to come.

  • codyh-Man
    5/11/2015 - 10:09 a.m.

    The crash of messenger was successful because it had taken 2000 some thing pictures and was the first satellite to orbit mercury and that is why it was successful.

  • codyh-Man
    5/11/2015 - 10:09 a.m.

    The crash of messenger was successful because it had taken 2000 some thing pictures and was the first satellite to orbit mercury and that is why it was successful.

  • NashMcComsey-Ste
    5/11/2015 - 10:55 a.m.

    At first i had thought this was an accident, and i thought "It looks like someone forgot to carry the 3" but upon realization that this was a planned loss, i have to wonder, do we have any plan for space debris? It would be much harder to retrived or clean than our waste issues on earth, but it does seem right to simply let it out there in space.

  • kenzeys-Man
    5/11/2015 - 03:18 p.m.

    I would feel so bad for those astronauts that crashed into the planets because those are peoples family. These are parents that could've lost there lives. I hope and pray they come back to earth alive.

  • calebo-Man
    5/11/2015 - 03:36 p.m.

    space and space exploration is very exciting because one your close to the stars and planets and not many people have been to outer space so its a pretty big deal if you do get a chance to go.

  • erikh-Goo
    5/12/2015 - 08:52 a.m.

    Messengers mission can be considered a success even though it ended in a crash. The text states that it collected more than 277,000 photos. The text also states that it went around out solar system's innermost planet 4,105 times. The evidence from the text proves that it was a success.

  • JordanBGreen
    5/12/2015 - 11:57 a.m.

    It's really crazy when you think about how far we have been in the discovery of space and other planets like already we are learning more and more about rare types of planets.

  • williamd-Koc
    5/14/2015 - 11:50 a.m.

    mercury was a success because we were able to collect many samples and images of the planets that was needed to determine if there was life on the planet. The satellite stayed in orbit for four years which is pretty impressive giving us a lot of useful needed information.

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