UPDATED 1/15/2008 6:34:00 PM –Since our first close-up glimpses of Mercury in the 1970s, we’ve been left to wonder: “What does the rest of Mercury look like?” When it imaged the first planet from the Sun in 1974, NASA’s Mariner 10 space probe was only able to capture 45 per cent of Mercury’s surface as it flew by. Now, the US space agency’s latest craft – MESSENGER – has photographed the planet closer and in more detail than ever before, revealing what looks to be an extreme version of Earth’s Moon, with craters inside craters, inside craters.
As of 2:00 pm ET on Jan 14, Messenger passed within 200 km of Mercury’s surface – far closer than the 700 km above the surface that Mariner 10 passed 33 years ago. NASA’s latest ambassador into the solar system will have far more advanced instruments trained on Mercury this time around, than its distant cousin did back in the Apollo era.
Unlike Mariner 10, MESSENGER will stop and stay a while, eventually settling into orbit in 2011. Before that, it will make two more flybys: later in 2008 and 2009. During this series of flybys and orbits, MESSENGER will try to solve more than a few mysteries about the closest planet to the Sun…