On Thursday, humankind is deliberately crashing a spaceship into another planet! We could easily be the evil aliens in someone else’s space drama. Well, at least we could be, if there were any remote chance that Mercury, the intended target of our bombardment, were a possible haven for life. And bombardment is not really the right word: what is actually scheduled is the seemly & rational conclusion to NASA’s MESSENGER mission, a highly successful exploration of the solar system’s mysterious innermost world. The mission has been ongoing for more than a decade (a decade of our Earth time—or nearly 40 Mercury years).
The 485-kilogram (1,069 pound) MESSENGER spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral in August 2004. The space probe has an awkward and contrived government acronym, which is why I keep talking about it in all caps—I’m not shouting (although planetary exploration does make me very excited). The craft took some amazing pictures of Venus (a planet which always calls to me) on its way to Mercury. Then MESSENGER flew by the small planet multiple times before entering orbit on March 18, 2011 (the first human spacecraft to do so). Since then MESSENGER has extensively scanned and mapped the surface of Mercury—a planet which is surprisingly elusive to astronomers because of its proximity to the sun. The mission revealed some surprising results which are leading to big new questions.
Mercury has a small diameter—it is actually smaller in area than some of the moons of Saturn and Jupiter—but it has substantial mass because much of it is made of heavy metals. The face of the small world is thought to be ancient: scientists speculated that its bland pitted face might date back to the formation of the solar system, but it seems that Mercury does harbor secrets.
The mission featured a big surprise. Messenger found surface water in the form of ice frozen inside the polar craters of Mercury. This was not really a shock—astronomers have suspected that ice was present due to radio-telescope readings. What was surprising was that the ice was coated with tarlike black goo. My poor roommate (who is always wandering the house pointing at films, stains, and accretions in horror) would not be surprised by a black coating on anything, however scientists were taken aback because Mercury was not thought to have any “volatile” compounds. According to the current models of planetary formation, elements like chlorine, sulfur, potassium and sodium should have boiled away during the cataclysmic high-temperature formation of Mercury…yet there they are, like the scum in my kitchen. The scientific data from MESSENGER is likely to force a rethink of planetary formation (although frankly, considering all of the weird exoplanets that are being discovered, scientists probably need to refine their theories about planetary accretion anyway). The mission also measured subtle planetary flux which should give us a better sense of Mercury’s composition and internal workings.
All good things must end, however, and MESSENGER has run out of fuel for maneuvering. Mission controllers have opted for an operatic exit and they are smashing the craft into the planet’s surface at 8,750 miles per hour (nearly four kilometers per second). This should create an 18 meter (50 foot) wide crater. Future scientists will have a known fresh disturbance to use as a benchmark for assessing the ancient craters of Mercury. Perhaps the plume will reveal some interesting secrets as well.
Unfortunately, it will be a while before we see the results of our destructive acts. The site of impact is hidden from Earth, and we have no other spacecraft in any proximity to Mercury. A European and Japanese collaboration called BepiColombo is scheduled to launch from Earth in 2017 and arrive at Mercury in 2024. Perhaps we will have new questions for whatever answers MESSENGER is about to divulge in its unseen but spectacular final act!
Update: Through some grotesque oversight, NASA failed to portray MESSENGER’s final moments through the magic of art. I took the liberty of providing my own interpretation above. NASA did not return my questions about whether the spacecraft will wail in a plaintive manner as it impacts the surface–so I am forced to assume that it will. Did I mention that Mercury has no atmosphere? You should probably ignore that…