Here it is, the first image taken by the MESSENGER spacecraft since entering orbit around Mercury on March 17, and it includes portions of the planet not yet previously seen by spacecraft. The image was taken on today, March 29, 2011 at 5:20 am EDT by the Mercury Dual Imaging System as the spacecraft sailed high above Mercury’s south pole. The dominant rayed crater in the upper portion of the image is Debussy, and the smaller crater Matabei with unusual dark rays is visible to the west of Debussy. The bottom portion of this image near Mercury’s south pole is new territory, with MESSENGER being the first spacecraft to image this region of Mercury.
After capturing its first image, MESSENGER acquired an additional 363 images during six hours before downlinking some of the data to Earth. The MESSENGER team is currently looking over the newly returned data, which are still continuing to come down.
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The image was acquired as part of the orbital commissioning phase of the MESSENGER mission. Over the next three days, the spacecraft will acquire 1,185 additional images in support of MDIS commissioning-phase activities. Continuous global mapping of Mercury will begin on April 4.
“The entire MESSENGER team is thrilled that spacecraft and instrument checkout has been proceeding according to plan,” says MESSENGER Principal Investigator Sean Solomon, of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. “The first images from orbit and the first measurements from MESSENGER’s other payload instruments are only the opening trickle of the flood of new information that we can expect over the coming year. The orbital exploration of the Solar System’s innermost planet has begun.”
Several other images will be released tomorrow, March 30, in conjunction with a media teleconference. We’ll get them posted as quickly as possible!
Source: MESSENGER website