Mercury got a brand new crater today. At 2:26 p.m. this afternoon (CDT) NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft plowed into the planet and excavated a 52-foot-wide crater in a flash of light. The spacecraft was out of sight and communication during the impact, since it occurred on the far side of the planet as seen from Earth.
Roughly 30 minutes after its demise, when the probe didn’t “pick up” on its end, the MESSENGER team announced that the mission was officially over. Launched in 2004, the spacecraft made three flybys of Mercury before settling into orbit in March 2011. Since then it’s snapped more than 255,000 photos and gathered vast amounts of data about the composition of the planet’s crust, its core, magnetic field and atmosphere.10 terabytes are available to the public. You can start crunching it by paying a visit to the Gallery.
By lucky coincidence, the planet Mercury is making a fine appearance in our evening sky the next two weeks. You can easily spot it starting 45 minutes after sunset about “two fists” below the bright planet Venus low in the northwestern sky.
If that’s not enough, tonight and tomorrow night, Mercury will be just 1.5° or three moon diameters from the Pleiades star cluster. Since you’ll be watching in twilight, be sure to bring binoculars to see the cluster more clearly.
Farewell MESSENGER, and thanks for the terabytes of memories!