First images received from orbit around Mercury

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft has sent the first images of Mercury taken from orbit back to Earth. (First image shown)
Image: NASA.

The first images of Mercury taken from orbit around the planet have been received from NASA's MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging (MESSENGER) probe. The images come after the spacecraft entered an orbit around the closest planet to the sun on March 17.

After various system examinations, the first images from the spacecraft were sent at 0520 EDT (0920 UTC).

Before arriving in orbit around Mercury, the MESSENGER spacecraft was launched in 2004, passed by Mercury twice in 2008 and once more in 2009. MESSENGER is the first artificial satellite to be placed in orbit around Mercury. Because Mercury is the innermost planet in the Solar System, the sun's gravitational attraction altered the spacecraft's approach to the planet. Because of this, a series of several maneuvers over three years was required to put the probe in orbit.

Although MESSENGER is the first probe to enter orbit around Mercury, it is not the first to fly by. Mariner 10 was the first to do this when it made three passes during the 1970s.

NASA is continuing to release images taken by the spacecraft as they arrive at Earth. MESSENGER is scheduled to begin it's primary mission on April 4, consisting of various scientific and visual observations of the planet. Some of the scientific goals the probe is to accomplish are: determination of the geologic composition of Mercury, study of the planet's magnetic field and internal composition, and transmission of more than 75,000 images back to Earth.

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