Space probe crashes into Mercury, ending mission

Story highlights

  • NASA's Messenger probe smashes into Mercury, ending mission
  • Space probe hit the planet's surface at 8,750 mph

(CNN)NASA says its Messenger space probe crashed into Mercury on Thursday after running out of fuel, ending a nearly 11-year journey that provided valuable data and thousands of photos.

Mission controllers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, confirmed the probe slammed into the surface of Mercury, as anticipated, at 3:26 p.m. EDT, NASA told CNN in an email.
NASA earlier said the probe was expected to hit the surface at 8,750 miles per hour and to create an impact crater 52 feet (16 meters) in diameter.
    The crash wasn't visible from Earth because it occurred on the far side of Mercury.
    Messenger (an acronym for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) was launched in 2004 and traveled more than 6½ years before it started circling Mercury on March 18, 2011.
    It was the first spacecraft to orbit the planet closest to the sun. It traveled about 5 billion miles -- a journey that included 15 trips around the sun.
    The spacecraft was healthy when it crashed, but was out of fuel. When scientists determined there was no way to save it, they held a briefing this month to celebrate the mission's success.
    "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.
    One of the mission's big findings: It sent back data indicating that ice in Mercury's shadowed polar regions, if spread over an area the size of Washington, would be more than two miles thick, NASA said.
    As the end neared, the probe sent back some final tweets thanking mission managers and counting down its final orbits.
    The Messenger mission is over, but scientists say they'll be busy for years studying data from the probe.
    And while the space probe won't be sending back anymore images, you can see Mercury with your own eyes. It's visible in the night sky just before dusk until about the end of May.