The first spacecraft ever to circle Mercury has beamed home the first-ever photo taken of the small rocky planet from orbit, showing a stark landscape peppered with craters.
NASA’s Messenger spacecraft snapped the new Mercury photo today (March 29) at 5:20 a.m. EDT (0920 GMT). The photo shows the stark gray landscape of southern Mercury, a view that is dominated by a huge impact crater. [See the first photo of Mercury from orbit]
“This image is the first ever obtained from a spacecraft in orbit about the solar system’s innermost planet,” Messenger mission scientists explained in a statement.
The new Mercury photo shows a region around the south pole of Mercury. A 53-mile (85-kilometer) wide crater called Debussy clearly stands out in the upper right of the image, with bright rays emanating from its center. [More photos of Mercury from Messenger]
A smaller crater called Matabei, which is 15 miles (24 km) wide and is known for its “unusual dark rays,” is also visible in the image to the west of the Debussy crater, mission managers explained.
The new Mercury photo was posted to the Messenger mission website managed by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which is overseeing the flight for NASA.
The photo is the first of 363 snapshots Messenger took during six hours of observations around Mercury. 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.
Messenger arrived at Mercury on March 17, more than 6 1/2 years after its launch from Earth.