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March 30, 2011

NASA's MESSENGER Sends Back First Orbital Images of Mercury

By Ashok Bindra, TMCnet Contributor

NASA's MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging, or MESSENGER spacecraft transmitted the first image since entering the Mercury orbit on March 17.

The historic image was sent on Tuesday at 5:20 a.m. ET by the Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS) as the spacecraft sailed high above Mercury’s South Pole. The image provides a glimpse of portions of Mercury's surface not previously seen by spacecraft. The image was acquired as part of the orbital commissioning phase of the MESSENGER mission. Continuous global mapping of Mercury will begin on April 4, said NASA.

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According to NASA, this image is the first ever obtained from a spacecraft in orbit about the Solar System's innermost planet. Over the subsequent six hours, MESSENGER acquired an additional 363 images before down linking some of the data to Earth. The MESSENGER team is currently looking over the newly returned data, which are still continuing to come down, said the space agency.

Over next three days since the first transmission, MESSENGER will acquire 1185 additional images in support of MDIS commissioning-phase activities. 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.

In a statement, said MESSENGER’s principal investigator Sean Solomon, of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, “The entire MESSENGER team is thrilled that spacecraft and instrument checkout has been proceeding according to plan.” “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.”

The MESSENGER spacecraft was launched on August 3, 2004. The spacecraft entered orbit about Mercury on March 17, 2011 (March 18, 2011 UTC) to begin a yearlong study of its target planet. However, this is not the first time NASA has received images from Mercury. Some 30 years ago, Mariner 10 was sent to probe mercury. Unlike Mariner 10, MESSENGER will explore all sides of Mercury.

There are six broad questions NASA hopes to answer during the year-long orbit of Mercury. These are: why is Mercury so dense; what is the planet's geological history; what is the nature of Mercury's magnetic field; what is the structure of Mercury's core; what are the unusual materials at Mercury's poles; and what volatiles are important at Mercury?


Ashok Bindra is a veteran writer and editor with more than 25 years of editorial experience covering RF/wireless technologies, semiconductors and power electronics. To read more of his articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Janice McDuffee