NASA Mission to Mercury Gets 1-Year Life Extension

First high-resolution image of Mercury transmitted by the MESSENGER spacecraft (in false color, 11 narrow-band color filters).
First high-resolution image of Mercury transmitted by the MESSENGER spacecraft (in false color, 11 narrow-band color filters). (Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

A NASA spacecraft orbiting the planet Mercury will spend an extra year circling the small rocky world, extending its mission to 2013, mission scientists say.

NASA's Messenger spacecraft has been orbiting Mercury since March and was slated to end its mission in March 2012. But the new mission extension will allow the spacecraft to continue mapping the closest planet to the sun through at least March 2013.

Messenger launched toward Mercury in 2004 and flew by the planet three times before becoming the first spacecraft ever to orbit the small, rocky world on March 17 of this year.

"During the extended mission we will spend more time close to the planet than during the primary mission, we'll have a broader range of scientific objectives, and we'll be able to make many more targeted observations with our imaging system and other instruments," said Messenger's principal investigator Sean Solomon, of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, in a Nov. 14 statement. "Messenger will also be able to view the innermost planet as solar activity continues to increase toward the next maximum in the solar cycle. Mercury's responses to the changes in its environment over that period promise to yield new surprises."

Messenger, which stands for "Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging,"will take aim at several enduring mysteries of Mercury during its extended mission. Those include questions over how long volcanoes were active on Mercury, how changes in the sun's weather cycle affect the planet's ultra-thin atmosphere (called an exosphere), as well as the source of oddly energetic electrons on the planet.

"The extended mission guarantees that the best is indeed 'yet to be' on the MESSENGER mission, as this old-world Mercury, seen in a very new light, continues to give up its secrets," said mission project scientist Ralph McNutt of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., which manages the mission for NASA.

To date, Messenger has snapped more than 60,000 photos of Mercury with more images coming in every day, according to its mission website.

Artist's impression of the MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft in orbit at Mercury. (Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/CIW.)

Messenger mission project manager Peter Bedini, also of JHUAPL, told SPACE.com in an email that NASA is currently working out the funding details for the extended mission. In addition to supporting Messenger's orbital operations at Mercury through 2013, the new extension also will allow mission scientists to continue studying data from the spacecraft through at least 2014.

And there is a chance that Messenger may get an even longer stay at Mercury.

"Regarding operating the spacecraft beyond March 2013, it is expected that spacecraft resources will be available to do so, but that scenario has not yet been explored," Bedini said.

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Tariq Malik
Editor-in-Chief

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of Space.com and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became Space.com's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining Space.com, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award (opens in new tab) for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at Space.com and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast (opens in new tab) with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network (opens in new tab). To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik (opens in new tab).