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Behold: The First Picture of Mercury Taken From Orbit

It might not look like anything special, but this monochromatic landscape represents a historic moment for astronomers: It’s the first picture of Mercury taken from orbit around the tiny planet.

NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft snapped the shot at 5:20 a.m. ET today, not quite two weeks after the probe successfully entered orbit.

MESSENGER took more than 360 more pictures before starting to beam its first set of orbital data back to Earth.

The images and info continue to stream down even now, giving NASA lots to pour over before a press conference tomorrow at 2 p.m. ET, when scientists will release a whole batch of planetary goodies—including pictures of parts of Mercury never seen before by humans.

In total, MESSENGER is expected to collect more than 75,000 pictures of the innermost planet as part of its year-long science mission.

The milestone image above features a noticeable splotch of a crater called Debussy, named only last year for French composer Claude Debussy.

The spidery rays of ejected material stretch for hundreds of miles across Mercury’s face, giving a sense of scale to the many smaller pockmarks nearby.

Debussy crater had been known since before MESSENGER’s arrival thanks to its brilliant appearance in Earth-based radar images of Mercury. But no spacecraft had seen Debussy in visible light until MESSENGER made a flyby on its way into orbit.

There’s lots more to come in the very near future.

In the meantime, here are a few early pictures from other famous planetary orbiters—the Mariner 9 Mars orbiter, the European Venus Express probe, Jupiter’s Galileo orbiter, and the Cassini Saturn spacecraft:


  1. Bulent Atalay
    May 26, 2011, 7:56 pm

    Hello Victoria,

    What an extraordinary collection of photos from the Messenger Spacecraft. I remember the Russian Venera Lander in the mid-70s to take a few shots of the surface of Venus before it physically melted. It has taken 36 years to get to these closeups from Mercury. I wonder if there any plans afoot to make a landing on the tiny, hellish planet. Thank you for sharing this blog with us. Bulent

  2. kiran tamu
    March 31, 2011, 3:50 am

    wow! Totally mind blowing. These are the real achievements of life of a human being. These achievements were not possible at first of 19th century but, in about only 100 years, the world changed. Hope that there would be many discovery of our infinite universe in near future.