Sharing just a few of the 1,500 images the MESSENGER spacecraft has now taken from its orbital vantage point, mission scientists are understandably excited – 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 images 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 the first insertion of a spacecraft in orbit.”
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 than 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.”
The top image shows an area of Mercury’s north polar region, revealing terrain that had not been previously seen by spacecraft. The long shadows also accentuate the topography of the surface, which includes a number of ridges, but an unusually smooth surface. 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, and now we’ll be able to peer into those crater floors.”
This is another region never seen before by spacecraft. “This is probably a plain deposit formed by undulating ridges and a host of secondary craters formed when a large crater was formed out of the field of view,” Solomon said. “We’re seeing that secondary craters (those formed from the ejecta of another crater) are very pervasive across the surface.”
Solomon added that they are seeing secondary craters that are larger than most secondary craters, compared to those 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 crater near the bottom of this image is a beautiful example of a relatively small, simple, fresh impact feature on Mercury.The bright ejecta and rays are symmetrically distributed around the crater, indicating that the body that struck Mercury to form the crater approached on a path that was not highly inclined from the vertical.
MESSENGER Systems engineer Eric Finnegan told reporters that it takes about 6 minutes for data to be relayed from the spacecraft to Earth, as Mercury (and the spacecraft) is about .71 AU away, the equivalent of about 106 million km (66 million miles). MESSENGER is in an elliptical orbit, and at its closest point in orbit (periapsis) is about 250 km away from Mercury, and at its farthest point (apoapsis) is about 1,500 km away.
This is one of the first color images from MESSENGER in orbit. Solomon said the Wide Angle Camera is not a typical color camera. It can image in 11 colors, ranging from 430 to 1020 nm wavelength (visible through near-infrared). “We will be taking global images in at least 8 filters to get a sense of the color variation, which shows the variations in composition and depth of surface features exposed by the action of impact cratering from Mercury’s history.”
Images like this were frequently seen during MESSENGER’s three flybys. But now that the spacecraft is in orbit of Mercury, views of Mercury’s horizon in the images will be much less common. Occasionally, however, in order to obtain images of a certain portion of Mercury’s surface, the horizon will also be visible. But Solomon said MESSENGER’s goal is to get a set of global data for the planet. “An entire global perspective is unfolding and will continue to unfold over next few months,” he said.
This is a closeup Debussy Crater, which was the object of the first image released by MESSENGER yesterday. When asked about the age of this crater, Solomon said it is difficult to give a hard age to craters on Mercury due to not having samples in hand, like to do for the Moon. “On the moon ones that are bright like this, such as Copernicus, were formed in the last 20% in the history of the planet. We see only a handful of bright craters like Debussy on Mercury.”
“When you see a crater that is so bright,” Solomon continued, “ it is because it has not gone through the process of space weathering, completely. Brightness of craters identifies them as being younger than the rest of the terrain, as it hasn’t had the time to have their characteristics altered by age, as those of us with gray hair know.”
Solomon said Debussy was likely created by in impact of an object 5-10 km across.
“Orbits of most asteroids and comets that encounter Mercury are traveling at a much higher speed than planetary bodies farther out from the Sun, and that shows in the amount of melt shown in the surface of Mercury. But still a lot we have to learn about that. Craters at different states of decay and degradation will tell us more about this.”
This graph shows the first two topographic profiles that were obtained from orbit by the Mercury Laser Altimeter (MLA). “This shows rich detail that we’ve just begun to analyze,” Solomon said, “showing exquisite detail, and we’ll be able to see the topography at both scales of individual geological features and global regions.”
One big question is about Mercury’s magnetic field. This illustrates the measurements made from 10 orbits of MESSENGER’s magnetometer. In a span of 5 days, messenger has tripled the mount of observations of the planet’s magnetic field, so Solomon said the science team is quickly ramping up a much larger data set to see the geometry of Mercury’s magnetic field, which might help explain why the solar system’s smallest planet still has a magnetic field when the larger planets Mars and Venus do not.
Moreover, because of MESSENGER’s orbit, the maximum magnitude of the measured field was greater than that seen during any of the spacecraft flybys. Solomon said these observations are improving our understanding of Mercury’s magnetic field and how its magnetosphere can change over timescales of minutes, how the solar activity and interaction between the Sun and the planet affect the magnetic field.
“As the Sun’s activity ramps up, it is an exciting time to be at Mercury and have a ringside perspective,” Solomon said.
Nancy Atkinson is currently Universe Today’s Contributing Editor. Previously she served as UT’s Senior Editor and lead writer, and has worked with Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy. Nancy is the author of the new book “Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos.” She is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.