NASA’s ‘Messenger’ Probe Set For Plunge To Mercury’s Surface

A NASA probe called MESSENGER will slam into the surface of Mercury on April 30th after four years of orbiting the rocky inner planet.

Don’t worry, the crash is all part of NASA’s plan. The MESSENGER probe – MESSENGER stands for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging – has completed 4,100 orbits around the tiny sphere and fundamentally changed our understanding of the planet. Nevertheless, it only had so much fuel.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Mercury is the least studied planet in the solar system. The NASA probe revealed that the closest planet to the Sun is more than just a blazing hot rock, it’s also an icy rock.

The spacecraft’s key insight was the discovery of ice in polar craters on Mercury’s surface.

NASA said the ice was “compelling support for the hypothesis that Mercury harbors abundant frozen water and other volatile materials in its permanently shadowed polar craters.” According to Yahoo, the space agency added that the probe’s data opened up new ideas about the solar system’s formative years.

“For the first time, scientists began seeing clearly a chapter in the story of how the inner planets, including Earth, acquired water and some of the chemical building blocks for life.”

MESSENGER discovered that Mercury is high in volatile materials like potassium, sulfur, sodium and chlorine. That fact surprised scientists who thought those substances were the first to leave a planet, especially one so exposed to the Sun’s solar wind.

Its other discoveries include Mercury’s incredibly thin (but existent) atmosphere, its volcanic history and the fact that it’s shrinking.

The probe also provided information for the most comprehensive maps or the planet’s surface ever made.

Despite its impressive insights, the probe’s death will be slightly anti-climatic according to mission systems engineer Dan O’Shaughnessy.

“That impact will not be in view. It will happen during a planetary occultation, so the spacecraft will pass behind the planet, out of view of the Earth, and will just not emerge again.” reports that the 10-foot wide MESSENGER spacecraft will hit Mercury going 8,750 mph (14,080 km/h) and leave a crater roughly 52 feet (16 meters) across.

Even in death, the probe will serve a scientific purpose.

Scientists at NASA will watch the spacecraft’s impact crater closely, using it to measure the rate of space weathering on the first rock from the Sun.

O’Shaughnessy explained, “having an impact crater, even a small one, whose origin date is precisely known, will be an important benchmark.”

The NASA MESSENGER probe was the first mission to Mercury since Mariner 10’s last flyby in 1975.

[Image Credit: NASA/Getty Images]