It’s pockmarked, looks a bit like a color-leeched bowling ball, and if you didn’t know better, you might call it “the Moon.”
But it’s only Mercury, first rock from the sun, and what you’re staring at (up top) happens to be one of the first in-orbit images of its heavily-cratered, hard-pack surface.
Thank NASA’s Messenger, a space probe–the name stands for Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging–that on March 17 became the first in spaceflight history to drop into orbit around one of the Solar System’s smallest celestial bodies. NASA just released a handful of shots snapped by the probe, though it doesn’t begin its official mission, which involves “continuous global mapping,” until April 4.
Not that Messenger’s dawdling. It’s already captured upwards of 1,500 images, several hundred of which NASA’s pulled down and a few of which it’s made available for public viewing (you can keep track of the ones they’ve released to the public here).
“The entire MESSENGER team is thrilled that spacecraft and instrument checkout has been proceeding according to plan,” said MESSENGER Principal Investigator Sean Solomon, of the Carnegie Institution of Washington in a statement. “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.”
We’re so busy looking outward (from the Solar System) or squabbling over astrophysical semantics (like whether Pluto’s a planet or not) that it’s kind of nice to see the (not Mars) terrestrial planets get a little NASA-voyeur love for a change.