Mercury as you’ve never seen it: Messenger reveals close-ups of planet’s sun-scorched surface as it prepares to meet its fiery end
- Messenger is expected to hit the surface of Mercury on April 30
- Probe has been orbiting Mercury since 2011, taking 250,000 pictures
- Latest image shows features such as volcanic vents and fresh craters
After four years orbiting the closest planet to our sun, the Messenger spacecraft will this week make a death-dive into Mercury.
But the probe hasn’t finished its mission yet, with new, detailed views emerging of the planet as Messenger spirals closer to its surface.
Now Nasa has released an image taken by the probe’s Visual and Infrared Spectrometer (Virs) revealing distinct features such as volcanic vents and fresh craters.
Nasa has released an image taken by the probe’s Visual and Infrared Spectrometer (Virs) to reveal distinct features such as volcanic vents and fresh craters. To highlight the geological features, the images have been overlain on a black and white mosaic from the Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS)
To highlight the geological features, the images have been overlain on a black and white mosaic from the Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS).
This is an instrument with wide- and narrow-angle cameras that has been mapping the rugged landforms on Mercury’s surface.
The spacecraft is expected to smash into the planet’s surface at 2.4 miles per second (3.9km/s). The event will take place on Thursday 30 April at 3:30pm Eastern Time (7.30pm GMT).
However, when it does, Messenger will be behind Mercury, and hidden from Earth.
‘The last couple of hours will probably be pretty quiet,’ Mercury mission head Sean Solomon told Nature.
‘There will be a final orbit when the spacecraft passes behind the planet and we won’t hear from it again.
‘I have worked on the mission for 19 years. It’s like losing a member of the family. Even pre-knowledge doesn’t prepare you completely for the loss.’
Among the features Messenger has revealed to scientists in the past month are patterns of distinctive hollows – each around a couple of hundred metres wide – in the bottom of a huge impact basin.
It has also sent back detailed images of huge 1.2 mile (2km) high cliffs that cut across a crater named Duccio on the surface.
Another image shows a 621 miles (1,000km) long cliff that rises 1.8 miles (3km) above the surface, called Enterprise Rupes.
Data sent back by Mercury suggests these cliffs, or lobate scarps as they are called, have formed as Mercury has cooled and contracted over time, creating dramatic tectonic faults on the surface.
Another image shows a meteorite crater that has almost completely filled with lava on Mercury’s northern volcanic plains, leaving just the hint of a rim behind.
It also shows how the contracting surface of the planet has also created strange formations where ridges and cliffs have hit other lava filled craters.
Andy Calloway, Messenger Mission operatoins manager at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, said: ‘The Messenger spacecraft operates in one of the most challenging and demanding space environments in our solar system.
‘We have met that challenge directly through innovation and hard work, as exemplified by the stunning discoveries and data return achievements.
‘Our only regret is that we have insufficient propellant to operate another 10 years, but we look forward to the incredible science returns planned for the final eight months of the mission.’
Launched in August 2004, Messenger has traveled more than 4.9 billion miles (7.9 billion kilometers) during its mission to Mercury.
Its journey included 15 trips around the sun before it entered orbit around Mercury in 2011 – the first spacecraft to ever do so.
During its mission is has acquired more than 250,000 images and collected more than 10 terabytes of data with its suite of seven instruments.
It has helped reveal volcanic vents that measure up to 15 miles (24km) across that were once sources for the large volumes of lava that have covered the surface and carved out valleys.
It has also revealed Mercury’s complex internal structure and that the planet has an unusually large core that is still partially liquid.
On 6 April engineers used the last of the Messenger spacecraft’s hydrazine fuel to try to push it into a higher orbit.
However, the tanks ran dry before they could raise it to more than 11 miles (18km) above the surface.
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