Mercury MESSENGER nears epic mission end

A spacecraft that carries a sensor built at the University of Michigan is about to crash into the planet closest to the sun—just as NASA intended.

MESSENGER launched from Earth in 2004, traveled 4.9 billion miles, and has been orbiting Mercury for the past three years, giving scientists an unprecedented look into both the history of the solar system and a planet they knew relatively little about. It will run out of fuel around April 30 and end its mission with a bang.

Without a thick atmosphere to slow the craft down and partially incinerate it, MESSENGER will keep accelerating as it barrels toward Mercury. It’ll be traveling around 8,750 mph when it hits.

“To be honest, it’s going to be sad,” said Jim Raines, an assistant research scientist in the U-M Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences.

Raines is one of the roughly 75 people—faculty members, engineers and students—who have been involved over the years in either making the spacecraft’s Fast Imaging Plasma Spectrometer, also known as FIPS, or analyzing data it sent back. FIPS is a soda-can-sized sensor that identified what electrically charged particles made up Mercury’s ultra thin atmosphere and magnetosphere. Via Mercury MESSENGER nears epic mission end.

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