Almost exactly 2 years ago, NASA's Messenger probe to Mercury became the first vehicle to orbit the planet closest to the Sun. Now, Messenger seems about to get an unwanted birthday present: an early death. Why? The mission was only authorized for two years, meaning that, as of March 17, NASA will pull funding and the historic probe will fall from its lofty perch and add yet another crater to battered Mercury.
That is unless the Messenger team, which recently petitioned NASA for a 2-year extension, has anything to say about it.
Speaking on the recent extension proposal, Messenger's principal investigator Sean Solomon said that "we recently submitted another proposal to go for two more years, and it [the mission] would end when we run out of propellant and Messenger eventually impacts the surface of Mercury."
As for why NASA should keep Messenger going for another 2 years< Solomon has several reasons: Messenger would get a front-row seat to two major events set for this year: solar maximum and potentially brighter than the Full Moon Comet ISON. Additionally, according to Solomon, as Messenger loses fuel, its orbit will get lower and lower until it eventually impacts the planetary surface. However, during the slow de-orbit, the cameras will keep working, allowing the craft that has just completed the first total map of Mercury to get pictures of far greater detail than those that have already set the scientific community's curiosity alight.
As for the mission itself, it was a long time coming.
When looking back at past planetary exploration, it is ironic that Mercury, a mere (on average) 60 million miles away has had, until now, as much visitation as Neptune, more than 2 billion miles distant in the blackness of space. The Mariner 10 mission of the 1970s, just a series of quick flybys, was the only Mercury mission until Messenger took to the cosmos. With Mariner, astronomers learned what Mercury looked like but gained only slight understanding about the planet itself.
Now, nearly 40 years later, Messenger was tasked with solving the mysteries left untouched by Mariner, which included: determining Mercury's surface composition, determine what the radar reflective substances near the planet's poles are, determine the magnetic field strength of the planet, and try to determine the inner structure of the planet. To date, Mesenger has performed with flying colors.
So, will this excellent track record and potential for further near-term science be enough to convince NASA to keep the funding for Messenger? Only time will tell. As of now, Messenger will continue to be funded until NASA makes its decision, which is expected for next month.
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