After more than ten years in space and flybys of three different planets in our solar system, NASA's MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) spacecraft will reach the end of its mission. Launched in 2004, the MESSENGER mission was created to study Mercury's chemical composition, geological structure and history, magnetic field, and other attributes.
Observing Mercury from a spacecraft launched on Earth is difficult. Aside from the enormous distance to Mercury, its proximity to the sun can cause the sun's gravity to affect a spacecraft's flight pattern. This makes using a direct path from Earth to Mercury challenging for a number of reasons. For MESSENGER's flight path, engineers at NASA, the Carnegie Institute, and the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins decided on a years-long, looping tour of the solar system that would eventually end near Mercury.
After launching on August 3, 2004, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, USA, MESSENGER completed one flyby of Earth, two-flybys of Venus, and three of Mercury before settling into its orbit. MESSENGER has been in Mercury's orbit since March 2011, collecting thousands of high-resolution images to map the planet's entire surface.
MESSENGER is now running out of fuel and will soon impact the surface of Mercury, its final destination. To commemorate this historic moment, the MESSENGER team has released the winners of its Name a Crater on Mercury Contest. As described in the video below, the winning entries will name five craters of scientific interest on the surface of Mercury. Learn more about the winning entries here.
For more Mercury and MESSENGER learning materials, check out the MESSENGER Education and Public Outreach website and this recent Science Update. The Science NetLinks' MESSENGER: A Mission to Mercury collection has many great resources including our popular Mercury and Make a Mission lessons for middle grades.
Image credit: NASA
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