Innovative Use Of Pressurant Extends MESSENGER’s Mission, Enables Collection Of New Data
The MESSENGER spacecraft will soon run literally on fumes. After more than 10 years traveling in space, nearly four of those orbiting Mercury, the spacecraft has expended most of its propellant and was on course to impact the planet’s surface at the end of March 2015. But engineers on the team have devised a way to use the pressurization gas in the spacecraft’s propulsion system to propel MESSENGER for as long as another month, allowing scientists to collect even more data about the planet closest to the Sun.
“MESSENGER has used nearly all of the onboard liquid propellant. Typically, when this liquid propellant is completely exhausted, a spacecraft can no longer make adjustments to its trajectory. For MESSENGER, this would have meant that we would no longer have been able to delay the inevitable impact with Mercury’s surface,” explained MESSENGER Mission Systems Engineer Dan O’Shaughnessy, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), in Laurel, Md. “However, gaseous helium was used to pressurize MESSENGER’s propellant tanks, and this gas can be exploited to continue to make small adjustments to the trajectory.”