NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft has been enjoying the past four years zipping around the planet Mercury. Launched in 2004, the probe traveled for six and a half years to reach the closest rock to the Sun, inserting itself into orbit around the planet in March 2011. During its time in rotation, the probe has collected valuable data about this little world, including information that indicates ice and other crazy materials in the planet’s polar regions.
“For the first time in history we now have real knowledge about the planet Mercury that shows it to be a fascinating world as part of our diverse solar system,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
But the time has come for NASA to kill its MESSENGER. The probe was originally supposed to orbit Mercury for a year, but the space agency extended its mission twice after figuring out ways to save fuel early on. Now, the vehicle is about to run out of propellant for good, meaning it cannot sustain its orbit any longer.
Rather than go quietly into the night, the space probe has a much more impactful ending to look forward to. Last week, NASA conducted a series of orbit correction maneuvers for MESSENGER. The idea was to keep the spacecraft in orbit as long as possible, but now that those are finished, the probe won’t be able to fight the Sun’s gravity, which is constantly dragging it down. On April 30, MESSENGER will slam into Mercury’s surface at more than 8,750 miles per hour, effectively ending its mission and all further communication with the probe for good.
This isn’t the first time a spacecraft has been sent on a violent collision course with a space rock. In the vast cosmos, objects move rather quickly, and sometimes it takes a deep impact in order to collect vital data about our solar system. And sometimes, what was meant to be a soft landing doesn’t go according to plan.
Check out a few of spacecraft’s greatest hits below: