NASA is going to purposely crash a $446 million spacecraft into Mercury at breakneck speeds

Mercury is the closest planet to the sun and the third-closest planet to Earth. Yet very little was known about this desolate orb until 2011 when NASA’s MESSENGER (MErcury, Surface, Space, ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) spacecraft became the first spacecraft to ever orbit Mercury.

Although the spacecraft has brought many interesting traits of Mercury to light — like the fact that the planet is shrinking five times faster than previously thought — it’s time is quickly coming to an end:

MercuryNASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of WashingtonMercury’s horizon cuts a striking edge against the stark blackness of space. On the right, sunlight harshly brings the landscape into relief while on the left, the surface is shrouded in the darkness of night.

For the last four years, MESSENGER fired its small engines to remain in orbit around Mercury, but that fuel is spent. That means the spacecraft is quickly losing altitude and is being pulled toward Mercury by the planet’s gravity. 

On Wednesday, April 30, at 3:30 pm ET, the $US446-million-dollar MESSENGER is scheduled to smash into the planet at 8,750 miles per hour, near its north pole.

This isn’t the first time NASA has crash landed a spacecraft. In fact, this method of disposing expensive space instruments is common. For example, in October 2014 NASA released images of an impact crater in the moon made by their Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer that was deliberately sent hurling toward the lunar surface months earlier. Another example is the famous Hubble Space Telescope: Sometime soon, NASA will likely opt to let the instrument burn up in Earth’s atmosphere instead of spending the money to try and retrieve it from orbit and return it to Earth. 

MESSENGER’s final resting place will be facing away from Earth at the time of the crash, so the event will not be visible from Earth.

However, the online observatory, Slooh, will begin a live broadcast at 3 pm ET, shortly before the scheduled time of impact, and will provide commentary from some of the mission’s scientists including Noam Izenberg, who helps run the Mercury Atmospheric and Surface Composition Spectrometer (MASCS) — one of the seven instruments — aboard the spacecraft. Check out the livestream feed at the end of this post.

Scientists suspect that the violent impact will carve a 50-foot-wide crater in the face of Mercury, which NASA will then study (using other instruments on Earth) as it changes over time for an idea of the planet’s erosion process.

In the last four years, MESSENGER has collected over 250,000 images of Mercury, some of which are the best we’ve ever seen. These four false-colour images highlight the different materials MESSENGER discovered on the planet’s surface like the presence of ice:

MercuryNASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of WashingtonThe rugged landforms and spectral variations on Mercury’s surface. False colouring accentuates different surface materials.

Mercury has an extremely thin atmosphere that is constantly being bombarded by the sun’s powerful wind. Therefore, this tiny planet that’s one-third the size of Earth has little protection against powerful impacts from asteroids and comets hurling through space and also has severe temperature fluctuations.

Below is another incredible photo of the planet’s surface. The darker, shaded regions of Mercury in the left of this photo are extremely cold, dipping as low as -270 degrees Fahrenheit, while the sun-lit regions are broiling hot, up to 800 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s hot enough to melt led!

MercuryNASA’s Marshall Spaceflight CenterAnother day, another beautiful view of Mercury’s horizon taken by MESSENGER.

When the spacecraft etches another crater in Mercury’s face, “it will be a somber moment,” Sean C. Solomon, the principal investigator for the mission, told The New York Times.

Slooh will begin broadcasting the epic event at 3:00 pm on Wednesday, April 30. Below is the livestream:

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