Mar 30, 2015 10:05 PM EDT
The Mercury probe sent by NASA to study the planet closest to the sun isn't ready to finish its groundbreaking work just yet so NASA is taking steps to extend it's mission for at least another month.
Last week, NASA's Messenger spacecraft executed the first of a series of engine burns designed to lift the probe's orbit slightly and delay its inevitable impact into Mercury's surface.
"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 kilometers [3 to 24 miles] above the surface of Mercury at closest approach," Messenger Mission Design Lead Engineer Jim McAdams, of Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab (APL), said in a statement.
If everything goes according to plan, Messenger could keep studying Mercury before smashing into it until April 30 or so.
The Messenger mission originally launched in 2004 and after taking a circuitous route through the inner solar system it became the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury in March 2011. Since that time, the probe has achieved a great deal. During its four years at the planet the probe has created the best-ever maps of the surface of the planet and also discovered carbon-containing organic compounds and water ice inside shadowed craters near the world's north pole.
The Messenger is currently operating on an extended mission, but will soon run out of fuel. When it does, the Messenger probe will be forced by the sun's gravity to the surface of Mercury. During its final days, it will prioritze observations made by the spacecraft's magnetometer and neutron spectrometer.
"With NS, scientists will hone in on shadowed craters at northern high latitudes to search for water ice. We have found such evidence previously in the mission, but we hope to find more at low altitudes and spatially resolve the distribution within individual craters if we are lucky," Messenger Deputy Project Scientist Haje Korth, also of APL, said
"With MAG, we will look for crustal magnetic anomalies," Korth added. "Establishing the presence of crustal magnetic anomalies on Mercury would be a huge result because it would extend the known temporal baseline for Mercury's internal magnetic field by eight orders of magnitude."
The first burn designed to extend its mission occurred on March 18, increasing Messenger's closest approach altitude from 7.2 miles to 21.4 miles with the next such maneuver scheduled for April 2. With this burn researchers hope to etch out just a little more research from the probe before it meets its inevitable demise and becomes a permanent resident of the planet closest to the sun.
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