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NASA's Successful MESSENGER Mission to End Thursday With a Big Crash Into Mercury

NASA's 11-year mission to Mercury will end with a big bang Thursday as the MESSENGER spacecraft crashes into the solar system's innermost planet.

MESSENGER, which stands for Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging, began its mission from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Aug. 3, 2004.

During its more than 4,000 orbits of Mercury during the last four years, the spacecraft mapped and imaged the inner planet, probed its magnetic field and gravity, and discovered a surprising amount of water in Mercury's exosphere, Slooh Astronomer Bob Berman said.

Slooh will cover the end of the mission with a live broadcast beginning at 3 p.m. EDT (19:00 UTC) Thursday.

The mission will end as MESSENGER runs out of propellant and the force of solar gravity causes it to crash into the planet.

The spacecraft will impact the planet at more than 8,750 mph (3.91 kilometers per second) on the side of the planet facing away from Earth, NASA said. Due to the expected location, engineers will not be able to view the exact location of impact in real time.

"Simply watching Mercury is always special and exciting, since it's so close to the sun. Even the great Copernicus said he'd never seen it. But watching it close-up while the MESSENGER spacecraft meets its doom will be a poignant experience that I'm glad we're sharing with the public," Berman said.

"Quite an end to a mission that began with its launch 11 years ago and needed a six-year circuitous route until it started orbiting that densest world in 2011. It will be fun to talk about its many discoveries, especially its confirmation of water ice in all the dark craters at the poles. This is possible only because Mercury is the only planet with no axial tilt, so it permits permanently cold-shaded areas in all depressions at its ‘top' and ‘bottom,'" Berman added.