New Images of Mercury Just the Beginning

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This WAC image showing a never-before-imaged area of Mercury’s north pole was taken during the spacecraft’s first orbit with the camera in operation. Date acquired: March 29, 2011. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

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.”

Machaut is the name of a crater, approximately 100 kilometer (60 mile) in diameter, first seen under high-sun conditions by Mariner 10 in the 1970s. The crater is named for the medieval French poet and composer Guillaume de Machaut. This NAC image shows an amazing new view of Machaut taken during MESSENGER’s second flyby of Mercury on Oct. 6, 2008. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

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 that 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.”

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.”

Solomon added that they are seeing secondary craters — craters that formed from ejecta of another crater — and they are pervasive across the surface. Most of Mercury’s secondary craters are larger those seen on the Moon and other planetary bodies. “They are surprisingly large,” he said. “ A lot of questions raised by images taken so far and have a large menu of questions we’ll be pursuing over the mission.”

The gallery of new MESSENGER images is available at