Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering in the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan


Mercury MESSENGER nears epic mission end

Posted: April 17, 2015

Mercury MESSENGER nears epic mission end (Image: NASA)

By: Nicole Casal Moore

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 AOSS Assistant Research Scientist Jim Raines.

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 ultrathin atmosphere and magnetosphere.

As an engineer at U-M’s Space Physics Research Lab, Raines helped design FIPS. As a doctoral student in planetary science, he used its data in his thesis. And since graduating, he has worked as a research scientist on the mission.

“I’ve been in charge of watching over it to make sure it’s okay on a day-to-day basis since 2006, so for almost 10 years,” Raines said. “It’s going to be strange when I don’t have to do that anymore.”

Mercury is a difficult planet to study because it’s so close to the sun – as little as a third of the distance that Earth is. This makes it both hard to see from Earth, and hard to get to with a spacecraft due to the sun’s strong pull.

“Now, we’ve explored the planet,” said AOSS Professor Thomas Zurbuchen, who led the U-M work on the mission. “We’re at the end of a really successful mission and we can’t do anything anymore to stop it from doing what it naturally wants to do. The sun is pulling on it. The planet is pulling on it. It’s just physics. It has to crash.”

To read more, please visit Michigan Engineering.

AOSS faculty members Thomas Zurbuchen and Jim Raines are in a new video about the upcoming end of the MESSENGER spacecraft. To watch it, please visit YouTube or click the box below.


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