The only spacecraft ever to have orbited Mercury has ended its mission by crashing into the surface, leaving behind a new crater as a monument of its landmark achievement.
NASA's Messenger spacecraft plummeted from its orbit and slammed into the planet as planned traveling at approximately 8,750 miles an hour, created a crater that is estimated to be about 52 feet across. In 2011, Messenger became the first spacecraft ever to orbit the hot, inhospitable world we call Mercury situated so very close to the sun. During its time in orbit, it circled the solar systems most innermost planet 4,105 times and collected more than 277,000 images that will keep scientists busy for years to come.
"Today we bid a fond farewell to one of the most resilient and accomplished spacecraft ever to have explored our neighboring planets," said lead scientist Sean Solomon, director of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
Dr. Solomon noted in his statement that the Messenger not only became the first to orbit Mercury, but also set a record for planetary flybys as it passed by Earth once, Venus twice and three times past Mercury before settling into orbit.
Flight controllers managed to keep Messenger running longer than expected by using helium gas that was not originally intended as fuel after its main fuel source ran dry. However, eventually even those reserves were depleted and gravity took its final hold on the spacecraft.
The crash occurred on the side of Mercury facing away from Earth, meaning that several minutes past before the team could confirm the crash. Once controllers were unable to receive a signal from the probe when it was supposed to be back in the coverage zone, the mission team knew the inevitable had happened.
"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."
Messenger's mission was a successful one, as scientists were able to detect frozen water covered poles significantly off the center of the magnetic field, found evidence of a volcanic history and discovered noticeable global shrinkage.
"It has been an amazing journey of discovery," said the University of British Columbia'sCatherine Johnson, a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute. Data analyses will continue for at least another year.