An artist concept of the Messenger spacecraft in orbit around planet Mercury.
camera (NASA) An artist concept of the Messenger spacecraft in orbit around planet Mercury.

NASA's MESSENGER probe met a smashing end when it crashed into Mercury this afternoon, marking the end of a decade of exploration and space discoveries.

The spacecraft crashed this afternoon into Mercury at more than 8,700 miles per hour, ending more than a decade of space travel, exploration and scientific discoveries.

MESSENGER stayed in contact with Earth until 10 to 15 minutes before its fatal encounter with the planet closest to the sun, where it has spent the past four years orbiting and collecting photos and data.

Launched in 2004, MESSENGER traveled nearly 5 billion miles on a route that included 15 trips around the sun, whizzing past Earth once, Venus twice and Mercury three times.

It began orbiting Mercury in 2011 and has since been collecting data about the planet to send back to Earth, including more than 270,000 photos.

Among MESSENGER's discoveries about the planet are hollows on its surface, evidence of volcanism and polar deposits of water ice.