MESSENGER's first picture from Mercury orbit!

By Phil Plait | March 29, 2011 2:46 pm

The MESSENGER spacecraft settled into orbit around Mercury earlier this month, and engineers have been busy making sure it’s functioning well. Now, the first pictures are coming in from the solar system’s innermost world, and as expected, wow!

Cooool! Or rather, hot. I mean, duh, it’s Mercury. [Click to ensmallestplanetate.]

The picture is dominated by the crater Debussy (named after the composer, who wrote "Clair de Lune", apropos of nothing, I suppose*), an impact crater about 80 kilometers (50 miles) across. It’s a rayed crater, with plumes of ejecta leaving those long, linear features across the planet.

This image is the first ever returned from a spacecraft orbiting Mercury, but MESSENGER has already taken hundreds more, and thousands are planned during this commissioning phase (when the various instruments and spacecraft are checked out). The real science observations begin April 4.

Tomorrow, NASA will have a press conference and more images. I’ll have more info and more amazing pictures from Mercury to show you then!

Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington


* Oh, duh. After posting this article I realized he also wrote "Trois Scènes au Crépuscule". Why is that appropriate? Because Debussy is a rayed crater.


Related posts:

Watermelon planet
Machault by MESSENGER
MESSENGER: Three days out from Mercury
MESSENGER’s family portrait

MORE ABOUT: Debussy, Mercury, MESSENGER

Comments (63)

  1. Pete_M31

    What an amasing picture! Is Mercury actually grey in color or is that from a black and white camera.

  2. Sucks not having an atmosphere!

  3. Scott Davis

    Looks a bit like our moon.

  4. Jamesy Boy

    Hi Phil the photo is just outstanding :) If you zoom in to the left of the crater, you can see what may be a structure with shadow, it’s probably not but something like this always grabs my attention.
    Q: Why don’t you put a tweet button on your site?. It would appeal to me and many others that frequent here.

  5. Andy

    Oooo a rocky, cratered surface.

  6. amazing photo. invokes the wow factor. what the hell is all out there…

  7. Trucker Doug

    Would DeBussy’s bright color and ejecta indicate a relatively recent impact?

  8. RickH

    So why does Debussy have rays, while (some of) the others don’t? Is it a function of the composition of the impacting body? Of time? Or of some other third thing?

  9. McWaffle

    They rays extending from DeBussy seem rather large for what is a comparatively small-diameter crater. Did the larger craters leave even more dramatic ejecta, which has since been lost? Or is there something unique about this particular crater?

  10. Jeremy

    Looks a bit like a 13 year old’s face.

  11. PayasYouStargaze

    Looks a lot like our Moon. I suppose they are quite similar as far as objects in our solar system go.

  12. Vivienne Grainger

    The most difficult part of writing your posts is coming up with the verb appropriate to enlarging the photo, isn’t it …

  13. Colin

    @2 (The Big Blue Frog):

    So.. you are saying that vacuum sucks?

  14. Thopter

    If I remember correctly from the orbit insertion on NASA TV, it’s a B&W camera with different coloured lenses.

  15. gort

    That’s no moon.

  16. Thopter

    Ack, filters, not lenses.

  17. I can’t tell if this is a color composite, but Mercury really is very gray. For a while there was a tendency for NASA artwork to depict it as brownish, but the tint was greatly exaggerated.

    Several other craters on Mercury have bright, spidery ray systems. One of them, Hokusai, has rays so long they make a whole hemisphere look like a watermelon.

  18. Allen T

    The prevalence of craters of a wide range of sizes with central peaks right next to others with smooth floors is interesting. Any idea what could be responsible for that?

    I hope Google puts up a Google Mercury site.

  19. Jenna

    @1 (Pete_M31)
    Mercury is actually grey. It has basically no atmosphere so all we can see is the rocky surface.

  20. Mark P

    Nice pic…can’t wait to see what else comes. The dark thing to the left of Debussy – could that be some kind of volcano?

  21. In fact, I think that’s one of Hokusai’s rays cutting crosswise to Debussy’s at top center.

  22. Ron

    No ice-bottomed craters so far. At first glance does resemble the Moon. Important differences surface seems more solid than Moon’s; unlike moon, no evidence of lava flow -no mares- so far!

  23. gamercow

    Are the large rays potentially due to high velocity impacts due to Mercury’s proximity to the sun?

  24. Chris A.

    For those who would dismiss Mercury as “moonlike, and therefore nothing new,” I would direct your attention to the bottom center of this image, where distinctly non-lunar “wrinkles” weave among the craters.

    While Mercury might appear superficially similar to the moon, it is a VERY different world, and MESSENGER is poised to reveal many of Mercury’s long-held secrets. I’m jazzed!

  25. Nic

    Once again you post a great pic (as always), I’ve been looking forward to th Mercury pics!
    Cheers mate, beautiful.

    Nic, UK

  26. Electro

    @James#4…I am not sure which feature to the centre left you mean. Is it the crater-like one nearer the centre or the one a step farther out ;-) that to my utterly untrained eye looks like outflow?

    Fortunately, Bablogees have a nice habit of giving us more informed analyses here.

    Anyone?

  27. Glen

    Looks like a face in the upper right corner. 2 laser-shooting eyes and a mouth saying “ooooo”.

  28. Trebuchet

    Makes me feel better about the human species somehow, seeing that we can do something like this.

  29. Gary B

    I notice that some of the bigger small craters appear to have lighter coloring on the rim opposite Debussy, especially in the lower left quadrant of the picture. Would this be the a coating of ejecta just barely caught as it was flung by?

  30. Crudely Wrott

    On the left side, just below center, is a group of three craters arranged roughly vertically. The lower most has two craters inside of it. The one on the right is quite large, rather like an O. The one on the left is much smaller, like an o. Take together the impression reminds me of that emoticon that I take for “temporary system freeze up”; o_O.

    You know, it would have been so cool if Isaac Asimov had lived to see these pictures. Some of his earliest stories featured Mercury as a stage.

    This would be a good time to get some popcorn ready and settle in for a treat as increasingly more images come down. This will be wicked cool.

  31. Michael Swanson
  32. The Picture is absolutely amazing.Umm..however I am still a bit puzzled with B&W theme..@Phil Could you please explain that?

  33. jearley

    20. Mark P Says:
    March 29th, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    Nice pic…can’t wait to see what else comes. The dark thing to the left of Debussy – could that be some kind of volcano?

    Yes, I noticed that too, the dark streaks (negative rays??!) coming from it look like some sort of out flow. I hope that we get a closer picture of that feature. Phil- does that crater have a name or ID yet?

  34. Electro:

    @James#4…I am not sure which feature to the centre left you mean. Is it the crater-like one nearer the centre or the one a step farther out ;-) that to my utterly untrained eye looks like outflow?

    It you start at Debussy, and go left, 2/3rd of the way from Debussy and the left edge of the image, you’ll see a crater with 2 dark lines, pointing to 5 and 7 o’clock.

  35. Messier Tidy Upper

    Great image, great news, great little spaceprobe. :-)

    Congratulations once again to the MESSENGER team. :-)

    So today for the first time in human history we have working spaceprobes around all four of the inner / terrestrial /rocky planets :

    Mercury – MESSENGER

    Venus – Venus Express

    Earth – lots!! (Terra, Aqua & GRACE among them.)

    &

    Mars – Mars Express & Mars Odyssey – & the rovers on the ground! (Plus more?)

    That seems like something of a significant achievement. :-)

    But also just a start.

  36. Messier Tidy Upper

    @24. Chris A. Says:

    For those who would dismiss Mercury as “moonlike, and therefore nothing new,” I would direct your attention to the bottom center of this image, where distinctly non-lunar “wrinkles” weave among the craters. While Mercury might appear superficially similar to the moon, it is a VERY different world, and MESSENGER is poised to reveal many of Mercury’s long-held secrets. I’m jazzed!

    Indeed correct – but show most non-astronomers a photo of Mercury and they’ll be hard-pressed to spot the difference. Even astronomers can be confused unless they look closely.

    Mercury strikes me as the “default settings” planet – no atmosphere (or at least precious little!) , no moons, no rings just a globe of rock in space.

    @1. Pete_M31 : Is Mercury actually grey in color or is that from a black and white camera.

    Well mercury is actually a shiny silver ..

    …. liquid metal, chemical symbol Hg! ;-)

    But then that would be a different Mercury we’re talking about. ;-)

    Wonder how much hotter Mercury would have to get before its surface starts to melt? Much hotter, I suppose, since the Cytherean (Venusean) surface is still solid.

    @22. Ron Says:

    No ice-bottomed craters so far. At first glance does resemble the Moon. Important differences surface seems more solid than Moon’s; unlike moon, no evidence of lava flow -no mares- so far!

    Actually we do know of intracrater plains which may well be volcanic in origin and there are at least strong suggestions of Mercurian volcanism if I recall right.

    As for ice floored craters – pretty sure those would be in permanent darkness thus not easy to see and photograph. We learnt about those via RADAR not photography I think. What we need for confirming them is either a LCROSS style impact kicking some up – a bit destructive and wasteful method really or so it seems – or best idea -send people and land them there to check that out in person! 8)

  37. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ 22 Ron still – See :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercury_(planet)#Plains

    which notes :

    Smooth plains are widespread flat areas which fill depressions of various sizes and bear a strong resemblance to the lunar maria. Notably, they fill a wide ring surrounding the Caloris Basin. Unlike lunar maria, the smooth plains of Mercury have the same albedo as the older inter-crater plains. Despite a lack of unequivocally volcanic characteristics, the localisation and rounded, lobate shape of these plains strongly support volcanic origins.

    @ 18. Allen T : I hope Google puts up a Google Mercury site.

    While your waiting for them to do so, I recommend checking out this :

    http://history.nasa.gov/SP-424/app-a.htm

    online info. from the old Mariner 10 spacecraft. :-)

    @31. Crudely Wrott :

    You know, it would have been so cool if Isaac Asimov had lived to see these pictures. Some of his earliest stories featured Mercury as a stage.

    Yes indeed. Asimov was my favourite author – still is for that matter – and an absolute inspiration – I couldn’t agree more.

    Some of Asimov’s Mercury based stories include this one :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Runaround

    one of the first of his Robot series and thefirts where teh 3 laws are explicitly stated.

    Plus this one :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucky_Starr_and_the_Big_Sun_of_Mercury

    where his childrens’ novel is set on the innermost planet.

    There were others too. :-)

  38. Wow. That is pretty amazing. It looks sort of like the moon!! Thank you for posting this! Please post more if you got em! :)

  39. Mercurial thoughts …. some more random than others ….

    Landing a man or robotic craft on Mercury will be easy, we can use the sun’s gravity to coast on in. Returning to Earth however, will require a simply tremendous amount of energy, more than most people realize, thanks to that very same solar gravity well.

    Would it be logical to presume Mercury may be the richest planet in the solar system in terms of metals? Rare earths, maybe? Minerals? I think it might, in which case somebody alert the Mining Companies! There’s profit to be made! Yes, I know I’m shameless, but anything that gets people into space is good enough for me.

    Is there any mercury (the element) on Mercury?

    Hey Phil, when the one-year mission is over, will we have fully mapped Mercury’s surface? When is the soonest we will have such a pic, suitable for framing?

    @ 37. Messier Tidy Upper – Asimov was my favorite author too. He wore the crown as the best popularizer of Science between Gamow and Sagan as well. You’d be surprised at how many “kids” (people born after 1972) find him boring. That’s because he wrote in “dialogue” style. Not enough action for the McDonalds generation, I guess. But my oh my, what dialogue. The Foundation Trilogy stands alone.

  40. Paul Raymond

    OMG! I see Jesus’s face!

  41. Monkey

    NASA faked the Messenger photos. You sheep!

    :)

  42. Monkey

    Ok, ok, enough glib /poe/ action.

    Im really excited to see what this little critter uncovers from the big M. A world so close, yet so unknown!

  43. Nigel Depledge

    MESSENGER FTW!

  44. Georg

    Landing a man or robotic craft on Mercury will be easy, we can use the sun’s gravity to coast on in

    @Steven Colyer,

    This easy task is done by a parachute down to sun?
    “Braking” down is as energy consuming as “climbing up”
    in a gravitational field.
    Messenger did his journey “down” to Mercury by several
    “swing bys”, didn’t he?
    RE mining:
    in general, mecury might contain higher proportion of heavy
    elements compared to earth. But- mining affords some chemical/physical
    processes which concentrate the ores in some rocks/cleaviges not too deep.
    All that is part of geology/minealogy, likely “driven” by
    the process of continent formation and circulation of mantle rock
    on our earth. Maybe something like that never happened on Mercury.

  45. Dave

    “This image is the first ever returned from a spacecraft orbiting Mercury”

    This comment alone gives me goosebumps, to think that these are some of the first highly detailed images of the planet that any human has ever seen – just awesome.

  46. #41 Steven Colyer:
    “Landing a man or robotic craft on Mercury will be easy, we can use the sun’s gravity to coast on in.”
    Oh, right! So that’s why getting MESSENGER to Mercury took six years, 16 orbits of the Sun, six gravity assists, and travelling a total distance greater than that to Pluto! It was the most complex trajectory which NASA has attempted yet.
    It isn’t at all easy; it’s far more difficult than rendezvousing with Mars or Venus, due to the huge delta V between Earth and Mercury. Simply sending a spacecraft to fly by Mercury is relatively easy, as you say; matching its speed to go into orbit or land on it is very difficult.

  47. DLC

    Cool. Errr..Hot, rather. Well worth the wait, and the money spent. and more to come!
    Show of hands — we’re lucky to live in an age where our technology can do things like this ?

  48. Mining other planets for raw materials is unlikely to be worthwhile unless they’re fantastically valuable, or unless the materials are going to be used on the planet where they’re mined. It’s just too expensive to transport anything from planet to planet. And Mercury is in a way the most inaccessible planet, for reasons others have mentioned.

    (Though I suppose quasi-magical spaceship technology could change the economics, it usually bothers me when “mining planets” show up in science fiction. Usually, it’s just an excuse to have a Western-like setting in space.)

  49. Katie M

    Hi, long-time reader, first-time commenter. I’ve never really cared much about Mercury (at least compared to the likes of Mars and Titan), but I teared up when I saw this photo for the first time, because I knew I was looking at something historic.

    “Click to ensmallestplanetate”

    If I may be so bold as to make a suggestion, perhaps it could be something like “enhermeate”. Hermes was the Greek equivalent, after all :)

  50. jearley

    With no atmosphere to speak of, and lots of solar energy, I would think that you could make electromagnets catapults (ala ‘The Moon is a harsh Mistress’) to send mined metals to the outer planets. #45 raises a great point though, that ores are usually concentrated by processes that might not occur on Mercury.

  51. “Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune,” English translation, ‘Clear the saloon.'”

    Old Victor Borge joke.

    Apropos nothing.

  52. Nigel Depledge

    Re: mining mercury for metals.

    Well, as has been pointed out, concentrated ores may not occur. And it is unlikely to be economically viable, as has also been pointed out.

    However, Mercury is the second-densest planet, with a density of about 5.4 gcm^-3. (Earth is a little denser due to gravitational compression. Source: http [colon slash slash] nineplanets [dot] org/mercury.html).

    So, Mercury contains plenty of metal.

  53. Jeff

    thanks,

    I was waiting for Messenger, I even remember the old images from 1974 at the time. Mercury has been very bright and easy to spot all winter/spring so it’s in mind, plus remember it aligned with Jupiter two weeks ago and Venus only a year ago?

  54. Bill

    It is, essentially, a great rock in space.

    Could Khan be hiding behind that rock?

  55. katwagner

    @38 Messier Tidy Upper – wait, what? I thought silver was Ag. And I thought the photo looked vaguely familiar, like I’d seen it before. Only lonesome. Looks lonely there.

  56. DrBB

    @41 “The Foundation Trilogy stands alone.”

    Certainly a fave of mine growing up. Then when I re-read it much later on, much as I enjoyed it, I kept thinking there are a lot of concepts taken for granted in it that I’m not really all that comfy with. Galaxy-spanning empire = good thing? Not so sure, really, irrespective whether it’s modeled on Pax Romana or Pax Americana–or Pax Scientifica. Speakin’ a which, that whole Second Foundation and Seldon’s Plan stuff is a little too big-brotherish by half for my adult tastes. Who put them in charge? Oh right, superior mind power and sciency stuff. Easy to be okay with that when I was 11 and took it for granted I’d be in with the super geniuses running it all behind the curtain, but later on you realize the people who thrive on that kind of set up aren’t really your friends even if it’s all created with the Best of Intentions For Mankind. All in all, a pretty far cry from that other adolescent SF epic that can grab you by the short ones at a vulnerable stage, Atlas Shrugged, but not so far as to be quite inaudible.

    But anyway, back to amazing Mercury pix and (sincerely) yay science for giving us stuff like this!

  57. Nigel Depledge

    @ Katwagner (57) –
    Yeah, the element silver is Ag, but the element mercury (Hg) is silver-coloured.

  58. niobe teasley

    i am only ten but i want to become an astronamist but i wanna now more about space what should i do?????????<3

  59. Nigel Depledge

    Niobe Teasley (62) said:

    i am only ten but i want to become an astronamist but i wanna now more about space what should i do?

    Well, I believe there are two ways you can go with this : amateur or professional.

    Here’s a few tips for becoming an amateur astronomer and learning more about space:
    1. Get thee to a library. Any decent library should have several good books about space, space exploration and astronomy.
    2. Join a local amateur astronomy club or society, and get out there observing.
    3. Persuade someone to buy you a telescope (it need not be all-singing, all-dancing to give you a good view of the moon, the planets and such things as open star clusters).
    4. Acquire something like a planisphere or astronomical-object-locating software, so you can find the things you want to look at.
    5. Get to know the night sky, and fall in love with it.
    6. Don’t expect the view through a telescope to look like the pretty pictures we get from Hubble and other large telescopes. Those pictures are (in essence) very-long-exposure photographs, and show up very faint details that the human eye won’t be able to see without a telescope about a mile wide.

    To become a professional astronomer:
    1. Actually, steps 1 – 6 above are a pretty good start for this.
    2. Study maths and physics at school (and astronomy if it is available).
    3. Study Physics and/or Astronomy (or astrophysics) at university.
    4. Take a postgraduate degree (preferably a PhD) in astronomy and discover something no-one else knew before.

    Well, that’s my twopenn’orth on the topic. I’m sure other people have some equally good or better ideas.

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