First image from Mercury orbiter: looks like the moon
The first picture taken from a spacecraft in orbit around Mercury has arrived on Earth. And to no one's surprise (it's been photographed from close-up during three previous flybys), the planet looks like the moon. (Click on photo to enlarge.)
The image, taken at 3:40 a.m. Monday as NASA's Messenger spacecraft passed high above Mercury's South Pole, shows hundreds of small craters scattered across a dark gray surface, and a handful of craters that appear to have blasted much lighter material across the landscape. It is a region never photographed before.
Scientists and engineers at the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab near Laurel, released the first image from orbit Tuesday afternoon, as they continue to wake up Messenger's instruments. Full science operations are expected to begin April 4.
Launched in 2004, Messenger was maneuvered into orbit around the planet on March 17. NASA plans to support Messenger for at least a year of study of Mercury's surface composition, internal structure, magnetosphere, tenuous atmosphere, origins and evolution.
"The first images from orbit and the first measurements from Messenger's other payload instruments are only the opening trickle of the flood of new information that we can expect over the coming year," said Sean Solomon, of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, the principal investigator on the mission.
Several more early pictures are to be released Wednesday afternoon during a press conference.
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