When I was a kid, Mercury and Pluto were the bookends of our Solar System. The two smallest planets, one of them was distant, icy, and raw, and the other was close in, speedy, and overcooked. One of them had the New Horizons mission planned for it, and the other had the Messenger mission.
Only one of them is still a planet, but Messenger just passed by Mercury for the third (and final) time. In early 2011, Messenger will settle into orbit around Mercury. Until then, you’ll have to content yourself with these brand new images — many just released today — from Messenger’s flyby of Mercury over this past week. Click all images to see them full-size. First, the approach using both the wide angle camera (top) and the narrow angle camera (bottom):
When you fly a little closer, you can take a great look at Mercury’s Terminator, which is my favorite name for the border between day and night.
This is a world where days and nights are comparable to years, where the atmosphere is about one atom thick. Mercury is the second densest planet in the Solar System, behind only Earth! (In your face, Hermes!) Some areas are relatively young and crater-free:
But other areas are so old and so heavily bombarded that they have crater upon crater upon crater!
And of course, no planetary fly-by would be complete without the mandatory lookout towards the horizon:
Amazing how black space is when you don’t have an atmosphere to contend with, isn’t it? There are a few more pictures available as well:
All of these images were taken from the Messenger web site, and you should check them out; they’ve got a live-update mission clock and odometer (!) on their site. Messenger is the first mission to Mercury in my lifetime, and only the second one ever, so I hope you enjoyed getting a rare glimpse of this baked, barren world.
(And I’ve always wondered, it’s named Mercury, but wouldn’t Icarus be more appropriate? Too close to the Sun, wings melted, death, etc.?)