Messenger delivers first Mercury photo

Posted by Emma Woollacott

NASA's released the first picture of the surface of Mercury taken by its Messenger spacecraft early yesterday morning.

It shows a 50-mile wide crater called Debussy in the planet's southern hemisphere, an area which has never before been observed closely - and which, it's believed, may contain water ice in areas of permanent shadow.

The image is the first ever obtained from a spacecraft in orbit around Mercury, and was followed by 363 more over the following six hours.

"The entire Messenger team is thrilled that spacecraft and instrument checkout has been proceeding according to plan," says Messenger  principal investigator Sean Solomon of the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

"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. The orbital exploration of the Solar System’s innermost planet has begun."

Messenger went into orbit around Mercury on March 17, after a six-year journey which took in flybys of Earth, Venus and Mercury itself, enabling it to create a partial map of Mercury.

The Messenger team is now examining the newly returned data, which is still continuing to stream in. More pictures are expected to be released later today. Continuous monitoring of Mercury's surface is due to begin April 4.

The spacecraft is expected to carry on orbiting Mercury for a year, in a 12-hour orbit. It will map the planet's surface and examine the magnetic field and atmosphere, taking some 75,000 more photographs.