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article imageNASA's Messenger spacecraft takes final plunge into Mercury

By Nathan Salant     May 9, 2015 in Science
Cape Canaveral - NASA’s long-trekking Messsenger spacecraft plunged to its destruction April 30 after running out of fuel on its 4,105th orbit of the planet Mercury.
The tiny orbiter (10 feet from wingtip to wingtip) launched in 2004 was the first earthly spacecraft ever to orbit Mercury and was responsible for major discoveries, including the presence of polar ice caps on what is by far the hottest planet in our solar system.
As a result of its 10-year journey, Messenger holds the record for planetary visits after flying by earth once, Venus twice and Mercury three times before entering orbit around the small planet, according to the Associated Press.
"Today we bid a fond farewell to one of the most resilient and accomplished spacecraft ever to have explored our neighboring planets," lead scientist Sean Solomon, director of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said in a statement posted on NASA’s website.
Messenger was the first earth craft to orbit Mercury upon its arrival there in 2011.
Messenger actually lived a few weeks longer than expected after NASA scientists were able to burn the craft’s helium gas supply as extra fuel.
"It has been an amazing journey of discovery," University of British Columbia scientist Catherine Johnson told the AP.
Analyses of all the data transmitted by Messenger is expected to take at least another year, the AP said.
But the craft’s 9,000-mph crash, expected to have left a 52-foot crater, was not seen by instruments because it happened on the side of the planet facing away from earth.
In fact, NASA did not even know for certain what had ultimately happened to Messenger for several minutes after the crash, the AP said, until controllers did not receive a signal that should have been sent when the craft came around Mercury again.
"Well I guess it is time to say goodbye," Messenger’s Twitter feed said as the craft approached crash time.
After impact, NASA controllers’ tweeted, “On behalf of Messenger, thank you all for your support,” the AP said.
“We will continue to update you on our great discoveries,” the feed said. “We will miss it."
The $427 million mission took off from Cape Canaveral in 2004 under the auspices of Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Baltimore, Md.
Messenger is the only earth craft to approach Mercury since Mariner 10 flew by the planet in the 1970s, the AP said.
But Mercury won’t be alone for long.
The European Space Agency and Japan plan a mission to Mercury in 2017, the AP said.
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