Photos: Messenger at Mercury

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  1. First views from orbit

    NASA's Messenger probe is the first spacecraft to orbit the planet Mercury, and it sent back the first pictures taken from orbit on March 29, 2011. This view looks across Mercury's pockmarked surface toward the planet's horizon. Bright rays from Hokusai Crater can be seen running north to south. (NASA / JHU / CIW) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. In living color

    Mercury isn't exactly the solar system's most colorful planet, but you can make out subtle shades in this first color image from Messenger. Major craters on Mercury are named after artists, authors, composers and other creative figures from history. The dominant crater in the picture is known as Debussy. (NASA / JHU / CIW) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Who's where

    This chart shows you the names of notable features in the first picture ever taken by a spacecraft orbiting Mercury. The triangle indicates an area of the planet that had never been imaged before. (NASA / JHU / CIW) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Debussy up close

    A narrow-angle image from NASA's Messenger orbiter focuses in on Debussy Crater, the bright feature at the top of the frame. The bright rays consist of material ejected by the massive impact that created Debussy, and extend for hundreds of miles. (NASA / JHU / CIW) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Way up north

    This Messenger picture shows a heavily cratered region near Mercury's north pole, as seen from an altitude of about 280 miles. The region had never been imaged before. Previous up-close views of Mercury came from flybys, including the Mariner 10 mission in the 1970s and Messenger's pre-orbital encounters. (NASA / JHU / CIW) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Craters upon craters

    This picture of southern terrain on Mercury illustrates what Messenger chief scientist Sean Solomon means when he says "there are so many craters they start to obscure one another." (NASA / JHU / CIW) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Simply beautiful

    The crater near the bottom of this Messenger image is a beautiful example of a relatively small, simple, fresh impact feature on Mercury. The crater is nearly bowl-shaped, with just a small flat area in the center of its floor. The bright ejecta and rays are symmetrically distributed around the crater, indicating that the body that struck Mercury to form the crater approached on a path that was not highly inclined from the vertical. (NASA / JHU / CIW) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Wide-angle view

    Messenger's Wide Angle Camera is not your typical color camera. It is sensitive to 11 bands of color, in visible through near-infrared wavelengths. This WAC image shows several craters on Mercury, with bright rays from Hokusai Crater (to the north) crossing through the scene. (NASA / JHU / CIW) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Smooth plains

    This Messenger image shows an area of Mercury that had not been previously imaged, in Mercury's north polar region. The smooth terrain is pockmarked by craters that cast long shadows. Understanding the interiors of such craters and any ices they may contain is one of the Messenger mission's main science goals. (NASA / JHU / CIW) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. NASA / JHU / CIW
    Above: Slideshow (9) Marvels from Mercury
  2. Image:
    Y. Beletsky / ESO
    Slideshow (12) Month in Space: January 2014
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updated 3/30/2011 6:12:40 PM ET 2011-03-30T22:12:40

Think the moon has many craters? New photos from the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury show that the tiny inner planet has far more impressive battle scars from regular high-speed peltings by space rocks.

NASA's Messenger spacecraft, which began orbiting the planet less than two weeks ago, reveals a pock-marked planet full of craters from pieces of asteroids and comets.

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"Mercury has had an exposed surface for at least 3.5 to 4 billion years, and some of those surfaces are extremely cratered to the point where there are so many craters they start to obscure one another," said mission chief scientist Sean Solomon.

He said it was surprising how many secondary craters there are. Those are craters created by the falling soil kicked up from space rock collisions.

Those initial space rock crashes "throw out a lot of material in the explosive process," Solomon said.

One area of the far north of Mercury had never been seen by previous spacecraft on mere fly-bys. The new images show scatterings of secondary craters, almost like a loaded pizza, but not the primary crater that was first carved out. The region is also so far north that the sun barely gets above the horizon and casts long shadows.

"It's heavily cratered," Solomon said Wednesday. "It may have happened on a particularly bad day."

The secondary craters usually are six miles (10 kilometers) wide but can be as much as 15 miles (25 kilometers) wide, much larger than secondary craters on the moon, Solomon said.

He said that could be because the chunks of asteroids and comets are moving faster as they get closer to the gravitational pull of the sun so they smack Mercury harder, causing the soil to bounce higher and make bigger secondary craters. The fact that Mercury, unlike the moon, is shrinking and has a magnetic field could be another factor.

Mercury is also darker and appears more weather-beaten than the moon, because of "the constant bombardment of the surface by dust particles and small meteoroids," Solomon said.

Messenger has been circling Mercury only since March 17. In its first day of photo transmission, the space probe sent back 224 pictures, Solomon said. By the end of this week, NASA will have received more than 15,000 pictures from the $446 million spacecraft.

The first imaged offered a glimpse of the planet's dark, frigid south pole, where scientists think there may be ice. But the photo isn't close enough to tell if radar images from Earth that hint at ice are correct, Solomon said. Photos of the poles are scheduled for later in the mission.

Messenger will spend at least a year circling Mercury and start mapping the planet on Monday, eventually crashing into the planet when the mission is over.

Mercury and Messenger are about 66 million miles (106 million kilometers) from Earth.

More about Mercury:

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