Nasa spacecraft takes first photo of Mercury from orbit

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Nasa’s Messenger spacecraft, the first ever to orbit Mercury, has sent back hundreds of photos of the Sun’s closest planetary neighbour. The imagery, which reveals a rocky and cratered surface, provides never before seen detail and will greatly expand scientists’ knowledge of the planet.

Early on Tuesday morning Messenger captured its first historic image of Mercury. For six hours, Messenger acquired an additional 363 images before downlinking some of the data to Earth.

In the near future Messenger will acquire 1,185 additional images in support of Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS) commissioning-phase activities. The MDIS system is the apparatus on board Messenger that is taking photos of the planet.

The year-long primary science phase of the mission will begin on April 4, and the orbital observation plan calls for MDIS to acquire more than 75,000 images in support of Messenger’s science goals.

The images are expected to cover previously unseen areas of Mercury, terrain that was missed by Messenger during three previous flybys before it entered orbit.

On March 17, 2011 (March 18, 2011, UTC/Coordinated Universal Time), Messenger became the first spacecraft to orbit the planet Mercury, more than 6.5 years after its launch from Earth. Inserting a spacecraft into orbit around Mercury is difficult because a satellite approaching on a direct path from Earth would be rapidly accelerated by the Sun’s gravity.

The mission is currently in its commissioning phase, during which spacecraft and instrument performance are verified through a series of specially designed checkout activities. In the course of the one-year primary mission, the spacecraft’s seven scientific instruments and radio science investigation will unravel the history and evolution of the Solar System’s innermost planet.

While Messenger is the first mission ever to orbit around Mercury, it is not the first spacecraft to visit the planet, according to space.com. NASA’s Mariner 10 spacecraft flew by the planet three times in the mid-1970s.

Messenger (Mercury Surface, Space environment, Geochemistry and Ranging) probe aims to study the chemical composition, geology and magnetic field of Mercury. With the Messenger mission, scientists will gain a clearer understanding of this planet that has only been visited once before in its 4.6 billion year history.

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The dominant rayed crater in the upper portion of the image is Debussy. The smaller crater Matabei with its unusual dark rays is visible to the west of Debussy. The bottom portion of this image is near Mercury’s south pole and includes a region of Mercury’s surface not previously seen by spacecraft.