LOS ANGELES — The Messenger spacecraft, which entered orbit around Mercury on March 17, sent its first images of the hot planet’s surface back to Earth early Tuesday.
The first image, received by the Messenger mission team at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., at 5:20 a.m. Eastern time, captures areas near the planet’s southern pole that have never been seen before — areas that could host water in the form of ice. It was soon followed by 363 more images over the next six hours. NASA plans to release additional images Wednesday.
“It’s early to speak about the geological details, but … we will be poring over those details for a while,” Sean Solomon of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, the mission’s principal investigator, wrote in an email.
The Messenger spacecraft is set to circle Mercury for a year. It will survey the planet’s hot, rocky surface, providing what scientists anticipate to be a wealth of information that has never before been gleaned from occasional glimpses caught from fly-by missions.
Even though Mercury sits blisteringly close to the sun, some areas in craters near its poles lie in permanent shadow — and are probably cold enough to house ice deposits.
Along with the search for water ice, the mission will map out the planet’s surface, observe its magnetic fields and examine its surface composition.