NASA releases first ever Mercury orbit planet picture

NASA MESSENGER satellite in orbit around Mercury sends back historic images

NASA's first-ever Mercury orbiter MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) sent back this image of the hot planet.  

The shot looks a bit like the moon: barren with lots of craters.

From NASA: "The dominant rayed crater in the upper portion of the image is Debussy. The smaller crater Matabei with its unusual dark rays is visible to the west of Debussy. The bottom portion of this image is near Mercury's south pole and includes a region of Mercury's surface not previously seen by spacecraft. Compare this image to the planned image footprint to see the region of newly imaged terrain, south of Debussy. Over the next three days, MESSENGER will acquire 1185 additional images. 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."

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NASA on Wed. March 30 will release more images as it holds a news conference on MESSENGER's pictures.

On March 17 NASA put the MESSENGER spacecraft into an orbit around Mercury, the closest planet on our solar system to the Sun.

The $446 million MESSENGER will orbit the planet once every 12 hours for the duration of its mission. The spacecraft will orbit Mercury at about 200 kilometers (124 miles.  At the time of orbit insertion, MESSENGER will be 46.14 million kilometers (28.67 million miles) from the Sun and 155.06 million kilometers (96.35 million miles) from Earth, NASA stated.

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MESSENGER has a variety of tools at its disposal. For example, the spacecraft has two cameras -- one wide-angle, and one narrow-angle -- to help the "two-eyed" Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS) create a map of the planet's landforms, NASA said.   It will also trace different features on the surface. A special pivoting platform will let scientists point the MDIS in whatever direction they choose, NASA said. 

The Mercury Laser Altimeter (MLA) will create topographic maps of the planet's surface in unprecedented detail, NASA stated. When the laser shines down and reflects off Mercury's surface, a sensor will gather the light, allowing scientists to track variations in the distance from the surface to the spacecraft. A Radio Science experiment will use the Doppler Effect to track the changes in MESSENGER's velocity, and translate them into clues to how the planet's mass is distributed and where the crust is thicker or thinner, NASA said. 

NASA offers a quick look at MESSENGER:

Size: Main spacecraft body is 1.44 meters (57 inches) tall, 1.28 meters (50 inches) wide, and 1.85 meters (73 inches) deep; a front-mounted ceramic-fabric sunshade is 2.54 meters tall and 1.82 meters across (100 inches by 72 inches); two rotatable solar panel "wings" extend about 6.14 meters (20 feet) from end to end across the spacecraft.

Launch weight: Approximately 1,107 kilograms (2,441 pounds), including 599.4 kilograms (1,321 pounds) of propellant and 507.6 kilograms (1,119 pounds) of "dry" spacecraft and instruments.

Power: Two body-mounted gallium arsenide solar panels and one nickel-hydrogen battery. The power system generated about 490 watts near Earth and will generate its maximum possible output of 720 watts in Mercury orbit.

Propulsion: Dual-mode system with one bipropellant (hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide) thruster for large maneuvers; 4 medium-sized and 12 small hydrazine monopropellant thrusters for small trajectory adjustments and attitude control.

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory built and operates the MESSENGER spacecraft for NASA. 

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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