NASA engineers have lifted the orbit of the Mercury probe – currently operating on an extended mission and almost out of fuel – and delayed its inevitable impact into Mercury’s surface by up to a month.
Launched in August 2004, the $450 million MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging (Messenger) mission is currently orbiting our solar system’s innermost planet. In March 2011, Messenger became the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury.
“We decided on a strategy that includes five maneuvers in as many weeks to keep the spacecraft within a tight altitude range of 5 to 39 km above the surface of Mercury at closest approach,” said Jim McAdams, Messenger mission’s design lead engineer from Johns Hopkins University in a statement.
The next such maneuver is scheduled for April 2. With these maneuvers, Messenger could keep observing Mercury till April 30.
After this, the probe will succumb to the force of the Sun’s gravity and spiral down to its doom on Mercury, Space.com reported. So far, the probe has yielded the best-ever maps of Mercury.
It also discovered carbon-containing organic compounds and water ice inside permanently shadowed craters near the rocky world’s north pole.
Messenger’s final days of operation will prioritise observations made by the spacecraft’s magnetometer (MAG) and neutron spectrometer (NS), mission team members informed.
Sent 10 years ago, on August 3, 2004, NASA’s Messenger moved dangerously close to Mercury’s surface, paving the way for an ambitious study of the planet closest to the Sun.
The spacecraft traveled 7.9 billion km with 15 trips around the Sun and flybys of Earth once, Venus twice, and Mercury three times, before it was inserted into orbit around its target planet Mercury in 2011.
“We have operated successfully in orbit for more than three Earth years and more than 14 Mercury years as we celebrate this amazing 10th anniversary milestone,” said MESSENGER Mission Operations Manager Andy Calloway, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL).
(With inputs from IANS)