NASA spacecraft sent to Mercury will take a death plunge into the innermost planet of the solar system at a speed of 14,080 km per hour, creating a crater of about 52 feet in 2 weeks from now
“We will be impacting the surface on April 30 around 3.25 p.m. (Eastern Daylight Time),” mission engineer Dan O’Shaughnessy from the Johns Hopkins University said.
Ever since it was launched in August 2004, Messenger (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging mission) travelled 7.9 billion km on a journey that included 15 trips around the sun and flybys of the Earth once, Venus twice and Mercury three times.
Messenger is the second spacecraft to study mercury closely after NASA’s Mariner 10 flew by Mercury 3 times in 1974 and 1975.
“Messenger’s grave could help researchers better understand Mercury’s rates of space weathering which tends to turn bright, freshly exposed materials dark,” said Sean Solomon, Messenger’s principal investigator.
Mercury’s surface is covered with craters.“But having an impact crater on the Mercury’s surface from the Messenger probe will be an important benchmark,” he said. Ground-based instruments will not be able to monitor the Messenger crater due to the crash.
The next Mercury mission BepiColombo Mercury probe being assembled by European-Japanese scientists will be launched in 2017 and reach Mercury in 2024.
“That will be an important study that comes a decade from now,” Solomon said. The Messenger’s observations so far have helped scientists to reconstruct a detailed map of the planet since it began orbiting Mercury in March 2011.
The 4-year mission was able to make certain scientific findings, including one in 2012 that said Mercury too has abundant frozen water and other volatile materials in its permanently shadowed polar craters.
“For the first time in history, we now have real knowledge about the planet Mercury that shows it to be a fascinating world as part of our diverse solar system,” John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said.(IANS)