NASA's Messenger grabs historic image of Mercury

Spacecraft snaps first photos from Mercury's orbit as it begins science phase

This photo taken by the Messenger spacecraft from Mercury's orbit shows an area near the planet's south pole. (Image: NASA)

This photo taken by the Messenger spacecraft from Mercury's orbit shows an area near the planet's south pole. (Image: NASA)

This photo taken by the Messenger spacecraft from Mercury's orbit shows an area near the planet's south pole. (Image: NASA) NASA spacecraft Messenger delivered its first photograph of Mercury -- the first image of the planet taken from its own orbit.

The historic image shows a cratered region of the planet's south pole not previously photographed. The image, released Tuesday, is one of 364 photographs that Messenger snapped before downlinking some of the data to the spacecraft's handlers at NASA.

Starting Tuesday and ending Thursday, Messenger is scheduled to capture 1,185 more images of the planet closest to the sun.

All of this comes before Messenger even begins the official science phase of its mission. The year-long primary science phase begins April 4, and NASA's plan calls for the spacecraft to take more than 75,000 images of Mercury.

Carrying seven science instruments and built to withstand the blistering temperatures near the sun, Messenger is tasked with performing the first complete reconnaissance of the planet's geochemistry, geophysics, geologic history and atmosphere, according to NASA.

Messenger is programmed to get images of different areas of the planet, including its northern pole, where some scientists surmise there might be ice. That would be a major discovery on a planet that is so close to the sun that its surface is 11 times brighter than Earth's.

Launched more than six and a half years ago, Messenger became the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury. NASA reported that on its journey, the craft followed a path through the inner solar system, including one flyby of Earth, two of Venus, and three of Mercury.

During its second flyby of Mercury in the fall of 2008, Messenger sent back more than 1,200 images of the planet's surface, along with topographical information and data about its atmosphere and magnetic fields.

Messenger is the first spacecraft to return information about Mercury to Earth since the Mariner 10 mission more than 30 years ago.

The space agency's Mariner 10 was the first spacecraft to reach Mercury and Venus. Mariner 10 flew by Mercury three times, returning images and data from the planet.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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