NASA Releases First Photos from Mercury MissionApr 4th, 2011 | By Roy Rasmussen | Category: Science and Nature
Last Tuesday NASA began releasing its first photos from the MESSENGER mission to Mercury. The first image released showed a cratered area of Mercury’s south pole that looked similar to the surface of Earth’s Moon. 363 more images were taken over the next six hours before the ship began downloading data to Earth. More images were released during a press conference Wednesday. The images suggested that Mercury has even more craters than the Moon.
The MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging) became the first spacecraft to enter Mercury’s orbit on March 17. Since then the ship’s controllers have been testing the craft and its instruments to make sure they are working properly in the planet’s hot atmosphere. Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun, can reach temperatures up to 800 degrees Fahrenheit.
Following instrument testing, the MESSENGER is scheduled to begin its primary mission April 4. At that time it will begin mapping Mercury’s entire surface by orbiting the planet once every twelve hours, for twelve Earth months. The mission is designed to study six key topics:
- Mercury’s high density
- its geological history
- its magnetic field
- its core’s structure
- whether its poles have ice
- where its atmosphere comes from
To help study these issues, the MESSENGER is carrying high resolution imaging devices, spectrometers to study the composition of the planet’s crust, and magnetometers and devices to measure velocities of charged particles. Small changes in the probe’s velocity as it orbits will provide clues to the planet’s interior structure.
The MESSENGER was scheduled to take 1,185 images over a three-day period last week. If all goes well, by the end of its mission it will capture over 75,000 pictures of Mercury.
Available images can be viewed on NASA’s MESSENGER website at http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/messenger/main/index.html.