Friday, October 10, 2008

Sides of Mercury You've Never Seen

This is Mercury like you've never seen her: the image to the left was snapped by the Wide Angle Camera of MESSENGER'S Dual Imaging System (MDIS) Instrument, at a distance of about 17,000 miles away from the planet.

The particularly bright crater just south of the center of the image is the Kuiper crater (first viewed in the 1970s on the Mariner 10 mission, which imaged less than half of the planet).

The terrain east of Kuiper, toward the edge of the planet, has never until now been imaged by a spacecraft. This is the first the missing portions of Mercury's surface, the portions that Mariner could not capture, have been imaged. The large pattern of rays extending from the Northern parts of the planet all the way to the southern parts make Mercury almost resemble a giant basketball.

Adding to its accomplishments, MESSENGER recently set a record for accuracy on its recent flyby of Mercury's surface. The probe missed its intended distance by a mere 0.6 kilometers-the smallest miss distance during a flyby of a planet other than Earth ever. To perform such a feat, MESSENGER used a technique called solar sailing that manipulates weak pressure from sunlight to change the trajectory of the spacecraft.

Operated by Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, MESSENGER (MEcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) is NASA's first space mission designed to orbit Mercury. To achieve this goal, MESSENGER must travel through the inner solar system, completing one flybly of Earth, two flybys of Venus, and three flybys of Mecury.

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