Thursday, January 17, 2008

Mercury Rising

After nearly 4 years of travel, the Messenger spacecraft has finally made its first fly-by of Mercury. Although it won't settle into an orbit of the planet for another 3 years or so (that's physics for you) it's already sending back some extraordinary images:

"On the upper right is the giant Caloris basin, including its western portions never before seen by spacecraft. Formed by the impact of a large asteroid or comet, Caloris is one of the largest, and perhaps one of the youngest, basins in the Solar System. The new image shows the complete basin interior and reveals that it is brighter than the surrounding regions and may therefore have a different composition. Darker smooth plains completely surround Caloris, and many unusual dark-rimmed craters are observed inside the basin. Several other multi-ringed basins are seen in this image for the first time. Prominent fault scarps (large ridges) lace the newly viewed region."

"As NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft approached Mercury on January 14, 2008, it captured this view of the planet's rugged, cratered landscape illuminated obliquely by the sun. This image was taken from a distance of approximately 11,000 miles, about 56 minutes before the spacecraft's closest encounter with Mercury. It shows a region 300 miles across including craters less than a mile wide. The large, shadow-filled, double ringed crater to the upper right was glimpsed by Mariner 10 more than three decades ago and named Vivaldi, after the Italian composer."

This is the first time that we've seen ever seen some of these landscapes, so it's hard not to feel privilaged. More images to come over the next few days as they become available.

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