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June 8, 2009

Mercury and MESSENGER

The planet Mercury is the smallest of the inner planets (4,880 km/3,032 mi in diameter), and the closest to the Sun (58 million km/36 million mi - or 3.2 light minutes). It was visited by the Mariner 10 spacecraft twice in the 1970s, and about 45% of the surface was mapped. On August 3rd, 2004, NASA launched a new mission to Mercury, the MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging probe (or MESSENGER). MESSENGER is now in the last stages of multiple gravity-assist flybys of Earth, Venus and Mercury, en route to an insertion into orbit around Mercury in March of 2011. In just two flyby encounters, MESSENGER has already greatly increased our knowledge about Mercury's surface features. As you look at Mercury in the new images below, keep in mind that it has minimal atmosphere, gravity about 1/3 of Earth's, and surface temperatures ranging from -183 C (-297 F) in some polar craters to 427 C (801 F) at high noon (Mercury's solar day lasting 176 Earth days). (20 photos total)

As NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft receded from Mercury after making its closest approach on January 14, 2008, it recorded several mosaics covering part of the planet not previously seen by spacecraft. The color image shown here was generated by combining the mosaics taken through three filters (infrared, far red and violet). These three images were placed in the red, green, and blue channels, respectively, to create the visualization presented here, creating a false-color image that accentuates the subtle color differences on Mercury's surface. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

At the Astrotech Space Operations processing facilities at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, workers check the placement of NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft on a work stand on March 10th, 2004. There employees of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, builders of the spacecraft, will perform an initial state-of-health check. Then processing for launch can begin, including checkout of the power systems, communications systems and control systems. (NASA) #

At Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, Florida, a worker checks wiring on the MESSENGER spacecraft on June 21st, 2004. Two solar arrays were installed later, followed by a deployment test. MESSENGER was built for NASA by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. (NASA) #

Aboard a transporter, the MESSENGER spacecraft is en route to Launch Pad 17-B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on July 21st, 2004. It was later mated to the Boeing Delta II Heavy rocket for liftoff on Aug. 2. (NASA) #

On Launch Pad 17-B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the MESSENGER spacecraft is lifted to the top of the mobile service tower, where it will be mated to the Boeing Delta II Heavy rocket on July 21st, 2004. (NASA) #

After rollback of the mobile service tower, a technician looks up at the Boeing Delta II rocket with the MESSENGER spacecraft aboard, ready for launch on a seven-year journey to the planet Mercury. This was the second launch attempt in two days after the first attempt Aug. 2 was postponed due to lightning potential. (NASA) #

Wrapped in clouds of smoke, the Boeing Delta II rocket with the MESSENGER spacecraft on top successfully climbs free as it lifts off on time at 2:15:56 a.m. EDT, August 3rd, 2004, from Launch Pad 17-B, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. (NASA) #

This image, acquired about 89 minutes before MESSENGER's closest approach to Mercury on October 6, 2008, shows newly imaged terrain that was not previously seen by either Mariner 10 or during MESSENGER's first flyby. MESSENGER was 27,000 km (17,000 mi) away, resolution is 5 km/pixel (3 mi/pixel). (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington) #

On January 14, 2008, the MESSENGER spacecraft passed 200 km (124 mi) above the surface of Mercury and snapped the first pictures of a side of Mercury not previously seen by spacecraft. This image shows that side, with a view looking toward Mercury's south pole (top, south is up in this image). This image was acquired when the spacecraft was at a distance of about 33,000 km (21,000 mi). (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington) #

This scene was imaged by MESSENGER's Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) during the spacecraft's flyby of Mercury on January 14, 2008. The surface of Mercury is revealed at a resolution of about 250 meters/pixel (about 820 feet/pixel). For this image, the Sun is illuminating the scene from the top and north is to the left. The outer diameter of the large double ring crater at the center of the scene is about 260 km (160 mi). The crater appears to be filled with smooth plains material that may be volcanic in nature. Multiple chains of smaller secondary craters are also seen extending radially outward from the double ring crater. Double or multiple rings form in craters with very large diameters, often referred to as impact basins. On Mercury, double ring basins begin to form when the crater diameter exceeds about 200 km (125 mi). (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington) #

Named for Juliana Sveinsdottir, an Icelandic painter and textile artist, Sveinsdottir crater (center) superimposed by Beagle Rupes is a distinctive feature on Mercury's landscape, seen in this January 14, 2008 image. Unusually elliptical in shape, the crater was produced by the impact of an object that hit Mercury's surface obliquely. More than 600 kilometers (370 miles) long and one of the largest fault scarps on the planet, Beagle Rupes marks the surface expression of a large thrust fault believed to have formed as Mercury cooled and the entire planet shrank. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington) #

This October 6, 2008 NAC image shows a view of the interior of a newly discovered large impact basin on Mercury, with a diameter of roughly 700 kilometers (430 miles). The basin was imaged as MESSENGER approached Mercury for the mission's second flyby of the innermost planet. The basin floor has a set of radiating fractures that bear a similarity to the extensional troughs of Pantheon Fossae, imaged near the center of Caloris basin during MESSENGER's first Mercury flyby. Members of the MESSENGER Science Team are currently mapping the features associated with this unusual basin and investigating the history of its formation and modification. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington) #

Machaut is the name of this crater, approximately 106 kilometers (66 miles) in diameter, first seen under high-Sun conditions by Mariner 10 in the 1970s. The crater is named for the medieval French composer and poet Guillaume de Machaut. This October 6, 2008 NAC image shows an amazing new view of Machaut taken during MESSENGER's second flyby of Mercury. The slanting rays of the Sun cast shadows that reveal numerous small craters and intricate features. The largest crater within Machaut appears to have been inundated by lava flows similar to those that have filled most of the floor of the larger feature. The adjacent, slightly smaller crater was formed at a later time and excavated material below the lava-formed surface. MESSENGER science team members will also be studying the shallow ridges that crisscross Machaut's floor. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington) #

In one of the first images transmitted back to Earth following MESSENGER's second flyby of Mercury on October 6, 2008, a spectacular and extensive system of rays can be seen. This NAC image shows a close-up view of the apparent source of those rays, a crater 110 kilometers (68 miles) in diameter located in the northern region of Mercury. The location of this bright crater is consistent with Earth-based radar images, which suggested a very fresh, rayed impact crater in this area. The amazing extent of this large ray system is visible for the first time in MESSENGER's newly acquired images. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington) #

On October 6, 2008, MESSENGER made its second flyby of the innermost planet, and captured a view of Vivaldi crater at sunrise. Long shadows are draped across the floor of this feature, which is actually considered a "small" double-ring basin despite having a diameter of 213 kilometers (133 miles). The low Sun illumination also highlights ridges, valleys, and chains of craters radiating away from Vivaldi. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington) #

During the October 6, 2008 flyby of Mercury, MESSENGER's NAC captured a new view of the bright, radial ejecta rays of Kuiper crater that were previously imaged by Mariner 10 at a lower Sun angle. Kuiper crater is named for Gerard Kuiper, a Dutch-American astronomer who was also a member of the Mariner 10 team. Bright ejecta rays such as these are produced as impacts excavate and eject relatively unweathered subsurface material. The ejecta rays of Kuiper and other large craters are observed to extend for hundreds of kilometers across the cratered terrain of Mercury. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington) #

This NAC image shows a close-up view of the craters Vyasa and Stravinsky (PIA11360). Stravinsky is the smooth-floored crater partially seen on the right side of the image that overlies the rim of the larger, rougher crater Vyasa in the center and left. The low-Sun lighting angle casts distinctive shadows that show Mercury's rough surface, pockmarked by craters of all sizes. Small craters are visible on the smooth-floor of Stravinsky because of the high resolution of this image. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington) #

This dramatic NAC image was acquired about 56 minutes prior to MESSENGER's closest approach during the mission's October 6, 2008 Mercury flyby. Prominent toward the horizon in this view of newly imaged terrain is a long cliff face. A small impact crater (about 30 kilometers, or 19 miles, in diameter) overlies this lengthy scarp. The scarp extends for over 400 kilometers (250 miles) and likely represents a sign of aging unique to Mercury among the planets in the Solar System. As time passes, the interior of a planet cools. However, the relative size of Mercury's central metallic core is larger than that of the other planets and hence has significantly affected the planet's geologic evolution. The numerous long scarps on Mercury are believed to be the surface expression of faults formed in the rocks of Mercury's crust as the interior of the planet cooled and contracted. This contraction compressed the surface and thrust some sections of crust over others, creating long curving cliffs like the one shown here. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington) #

Taken about 28 minutes following MESSENGER's closest approach during the mission's second Mercury flyby, this October, 2008 NAC image, just one of a large mosaic set, focuses in on an impact basin with a nicely developed peak-ring structure. Subsequent impact events have resulted in smaller craters superimposed on top of the larger peak-ring basin. Peak-ring structures form during the impact process and can be found in many large basins on Mercury's surface. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington) #

On October 5, 2008 4:40 am EDT, MESSENGER successfully completed its second flyby of Mercury. The spectacular image shown here is one of the first to be returned and shows a WAC image of the departing planet taken about 90 minutes after the spacecraft's closest approach to Mercury. The bright crater just south of the center of the image is Kuiper, identified on images from the Mariner 10 mission in the 1970s. A striking characteristic of this newly imaged area is the large pattern of rays that extend from the northern region of Mercury to regions south of Kuiper. This extensive ray system appears to emanate from a relatively young crater newly imaged by MESSENGER, providing a view of the planet distinctly unique from that obtained during MESSENGER's first flyby. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington) #

 
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