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

The only spacecraft ever to orbit Mercury has ended its four-year tour. It came to an end with a crash landing.

NASA's Messenger plunged from orbit as planned. It slammed into the sun's closest planet at about 8,750 mph. The impact created a crater an estimated 52 feet across.

Messenger became the first spacecraft to orbit hot, little Mercury. That was in 2011. It circled the solar system's innermost planet 4,105 times. It 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. It went once past Earth, twice past Venus and three times past Mercury. Then it entered Mercury's orbit. The spacecraft survived "both punishing heat and extreme doses of radiation." Scientists said it surpassed expectations.

Flight controllers managed to keep the spacecraft going a few extra weeks. To do it, the scientists used helium gas. The gas was 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 to be littered by mankind. The other rocky inner planets are Mars and Venus.

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. It was a sign that the spacecraft succumbed to gravity.

How large was Messenger? It measured 10 feet solar wingtip to wingtip.

"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 called it an end of an era. Messenger detected Mercury's frozen water-covered poles and significantly off-center magnetic field. Some of its other discoveries were volcanic deposits. They are evidence of the planet's eruptive past.

"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. That was back in the 1970s. Mariner was only a flyby mission.

The Europeans and Japanese are teaming up to create Mercury's next guests. The countries are building a pair of satellites known as BepiColombo. They're scheduled for launch in 2017. They would arrive 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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COMMENTS (147)
  • alexc-Che
    5/06/2015 - 01:53 p.m.

    NASA's messenger plunged from orbit as planned. It slammed into the sun's closest planet at about 8,750 mph, The impact created a crater an estimated 52 feet across. Messenger became the first spacecraft to orbit hot, little Mercury.

  • aven-Tay
    5/06/2015 - 03:32 p.m.

    test comment May 6, 2015 test comment May 6, 2015 test comment May 6, 2015 test comment May 6, 2015 test comment May 6, 2015 test comment May 6, 2015 test comment May 6, 2015 test comment May 6, 2015 test comment May 6, 2015 test comment May 6, 2015 test comment May 6, 2015 test comment May 6, 2015 test comment May 6, 2015 test comment May 6, 2015 test comment May 6, 2015 test comment May 6, 2015 test comment May 6, 2015 test comment May 6, 2015 test comment May 6, 2015 test comment May 6, 2015 test comment May 6, 2015 test comment May 6, 2015 test comment May 6, 2015

  • jonathond-Ewi
    5/06/2015 - 03:35 p.m.

    There no way back to earth. The people inside be dead. people could not do a call beacouse they ware not abel to reach the radio

  • jonathond-Ewi
    5/06/2015 - 03:36 p.m.

    There no way back to earth. The people inside be dead. people could not do a call beacouse they ware not abel to reach the radio

  • John0724-YYCA
    5/06/2015 - 07:16 p.m.

    Wow I never thought that in Mercury there are volcanoes and frozen poles because I thought Earth only had does stuff but I was wrong and I wish the Messenger didn't crash because the Messenger could have been more useful in the future because it could have gone to other planets that we didn't discover yet and take a billion of useful pictures and send it right back to earth. Well the creators should have been sad because they created a machine that take pictures of other planets and it has crashed and it is all broken and they can't go to Mercury and get the scraps and metal back because it is to hot.

  • Eric0221-YYCA
    5/06/2015 - 09:29 p.m.

    I think that it is kind of bad for a spacecraft to end its four-year tour around the hottest, little planet in the universe, but the spacecraft has taken a lot of images of Mercury from the atmosphere, but I think that it will be the end of the Spacecraft's four year tour of Mercury. Well if a spacecraft crashed on Mercury's surface, I think that scientists are still finding a solution on how the spacecraft crashed on Mercury.

  • ba117-Sch
    5/06/2015 - 09:48 p.m.

    In response to "Spacecraft crashes into planet," I agree that gravity took down Messenger. One reason I agree is that they lost connection to the satellite, but the spacecraft might of survived the fall and since its on the other side of mercury. Another reason is that Mercury has crushing gravity this making it very likely that it succumbed to the gravity, but mercury is a very small planet so how does it have that much gravity. It says in the article "gravity's relentless tug did Messenger in." A third reason i agree is that once it runs out of gas it should shut down causing it to fall to the ground of mercury, it has solar panels though so why does it need gas. Even though I think it succumbed to gravity, I think that it might of got hit by something in the area.

  • RachelD-4
    5/07/2015 - 12:36 a.m.

    Messenger a space ship was designed to be a fly-by going around Mercury. Messenger exceeded expectations by orbiting around Mercury 4105 times. It lasted a lot longer than people at NASA expected and eventually ran out of fuel and had to be fueled by helium gas. Messenger took a total of 277,000 pictures and when it finally ran out of gas it couldn't resist gravity and smashed into Murcury at about 8,750 mph creating an estimated 52 foot crater. Messenger's 4 year and $427 million mission helped astronomers learn more about Mercury, like that it has frozen water-covered poles and an off-center magnetic field. They also discovered that there is volcanic deposits, implying that the planet had eruptive past. Because of the Messengers success European and Japanese are teaming up to create another mission like this and it is scheduled to launch 2017 and should arrive in orbit in 2024.

    My opinion on this article is that it is a major discovery and it will lead to many more discoveries. I also predict that when they keep launching they will keep finding more and more research and eventually do the impossible.

  • TylerL-Kut
    5/07/2015 - 08:18 a.m.

    this is highly shocking this could be a new planet with life or once had life on it. People may have a place to live. If we can live on this planet NASA has made a giant discovery. I think that people should know about this strait away.

  • CaseyS-Kut
    5/07/2015 - 08:29 a.m.

    the reason its considered a succses even if it crashed is that they got the information they needed to get, plus they only pu in enough feul to get there. and i thay had put enough to get back i wouldn't be a gaurentee that the ship would make it back, so that would mean they spent more money on feul than they really needed to.

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