Monday, April 27, 2015

The Days Dwindle Down to a Precious Few

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

MESSENGER's days are indeed down to a precious few. This image was obtained on the day following MESSENGER's final orbital correction maneuver. The image is located just inside the southern rim of Chong Chol crater on Mercury, named for a Korean poet of the 1500s. It is challenging to obtain good images when the spacecraft is very low above the planet, because of the high speed at which the camera's field of view is moving across the surface.

Very short exposure times are used to limit smear, and this image was binned from its original size of 1024 x 1024 pixels to 512 x 512 to improve the image quality. The title of today's image is a line from "September Song" (composed by Kurt Weill, with lyrics by Maxwell Anderson. The song was subsequently covered by artists including Ian McCulloch of Echo & the Bunnymen, Lou Reed, and Bryan Ferry).

The spacecraft's fuel tanks are now completely empty, and there is no means to prevent the Sun's gravity from pulling MESSENGER's orbit closer and closer to the surface of Mercury. Impact is expected to occur on April 30, 2015.

The MESSENGER spacecraft is the first ever to orbit the planet Mercury, and the spacecraft's seven scientific instruments and radio science investigation are unraveling the history and evolution of the Solar System's innermost planet. In the mission's more than four years of orbital operations, MESSENGER has acquired over 250,000 images and extensive other data sets. MESSENGER's highly successful orbital mission is about to come to an end, as the spacecraft runs out of propellant and the force of solar gravity causes it to impact the surface of Mercury in April 2015.

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