Thursday, March 31, 2011

New Images from Mercury: Just the Beginning for MESSENGER in Orbit


Sharing just a few of the 1,500 images the MESSENGER spacecraft has now taken from its orbital vantage point, mission scientists are understandably excitied – if not overwhelmed – by the data being returned from Mercury. “The instruments are all working marvelously and returning data,” said MESSENGER Principal Investigator Sean Solomon. “The imaging system was turned on earlier this week and over 1,500 images will be acquired over a 3 day period. That is more images than were taken during any of the flybys by the spacecraft.”

Solomon said some of the first image were taken precisely 37 years after the first spacecraft flew by Mercury, Mariner 10 in 1974. “We have now closed the loop begun by Mariner 10, culminating with first insertion of spacecraft in orbit.”

2,430 days ago the MESSENGER lifted off from earth, and after three flybys and a nearly 5 billion mile journey, the spacecraft’s thrusters fired for 15 minutes back on March 17, enabling the spacecraft to ease into orbit.

While already finding intriguing features – many which pose more questions than answers, Solomon reminded reporters during a press conference call today that “all the big questions about Mercury are meant to be answered in a year of observations, not just a couple of days, so we’ll look forward to what is yet to come.”

The top image shows an area of Mercury’s north polar region, revealing terrain that had not been previously seen by spacecraft. The long shadows also accentuate the topography of the surface, which includes a number of ridges, but an unusually smooth surface. Solomon said understanding the interiors of the craters in Mercury’s polar regions and any ices they may contain is one of the main science goals of the MESSENGER mission. “Radar images of Mercury that are now 20 years old suggested that water ice could be in the interiors of these craters,” Solomon said. “That is a hypothesis we’ve been aching to test for 20 years, now and we’ll be able to peer into those crater floors.”

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