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NASA’s Mercury MESSENGER mission gets a new lease of life till April 30

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NASA has revealed that its engineers overseeing the space agency’s Mercury MESSENGER mission have lifted the orbit of the Mercury probe thereby delaying the inevitable in a bid to keep the satellite operational and getting as much more information as possible about the planet’s surface.

Launched in August 2004, the $450 million MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging (Messenger) probe became the first man-made satellite to orbit Mercury. Currently orbiting our solar system’s innermost planet operating on an extended mission with almost no fuel, MESSENGER will be able to function for nearly one more month after mission managers decided to give the probe a new lease of life by delaying its inevitable impact into Mercury’s surface.

“We decided on a strategy that includes five maneuvers in as many weeks to keep the spacecraft within a tight altitude range of 5 to 39 km above the surface of Mercury at closest approach,” said Jim McAdams, Messenger mission’s design lead engineer from Johns Hopkins University in a statement.

The next such maneuver is scheduled for April 2. With these maneuvers, Messenger could keep observing Mercury till April 30. After this, the probe will succumb to the force of the Sun’s gravity and spiral down to its doom on Mercury.

So far, the probe has yielded the best-ever maps of Mercury. It also discovered carbon-containing organic compounds and water ice inside permanently shadowed craters near the rocky world’s north pole.

Messenger’s final days of operation will prioritise observations made by the spacecraft’s magnetometer (MAG) and neutron spectrometer (NS), mission team members informed.

In related news, scientists have managed to find out why is Mercury’s surface dark and barely reflective. In a paper published in Nature Geoscience, the researchers suggest that a steady dusting of carbon from passing comets has slowly painted Mercury black over billions of years.