NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging), seems to have redefined the term “cruisin”. The spacecraft was launched on August 3, 2004, but has been lapping the inner solar system for the past 6.6 years. A dozen laps, to be exact, around and around and around. On March 17, 2011, the MESSENGER finally made a move after years of just cruising by, and entered the orbit of the planet closest to the sun, Mercury. It’s mission is to conduct a yearlong study of the planet by mapping its entire surface.
At 5:20 a.m. ET on Mar. 29, 2011, MESSENGER captured the first image from a spacecraft of the surface of Mercury. Over the next six hours, it captured 363 more, then sent all the images back to NASA.
From the time it launched in 2004 until it arrived in orbit around Mercury two weeks ago, the spacecraft will have traveled 4.9 billion miles, at an average speed of approximately 84,500 miles per hour. During the yearlong orbital phase alone, it will travel 22.7 million miles. Eventually, years after the planet has been mapped, and the official mission has been concluded, the MESSENGER will lose its ability to maintain orbit and crash onto the very surface it traveled so far to reach.