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Mercury probe sends Venus pics

NASA today released the first pictures from this month's flyby of Venus by the Messenger spacecraft, which is on its way to the $427 million mission's main event at Mercury. The black-and-white snapshots provide just a preliminary taste of what is said to be a spectacular portfolio comprising more than 600 images.

This black-and-white image was captured as

Messenger closed in on Venus.

Messenger got as close as 210 miles (338 kilometers) from Venus during the June 5 encounter, giving the mission team a chance to put the probe's Mercury Dual Imaging System to the test. Once Messenger gets to Mercury, it will use the wide-angle/narrow-angle camera system to map out landforms and gather data on surface composition.

The cameras weren't designed specifically to show off cloud-shrouded Venus to its best advantage, but Messenger's principal investigator, Sean Solomon of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, said in a news release that the dress rehearsal was a "huge success." The probe's aim was so good that a course correction planned for July will not be necessary after all, he said.

Arizona State University's Mark Robinson, a member of the Messenger science team, said the most detailed image released today, taken on June 5, would be used to fine-tune the MDIS.

"Venus is enshrouded by a global cloud layer that obscures its surface to the MDIS," Robinson explained. "This single frame is part of a color sequence taken inbound to help us calibrate the wide-angle camera in preparation for its first flyby of Mercury next January. Over the next several months the camera team will pore over the 614 images taken during the Venus 2 encounter to adjust color sensitivity parameters and better understand the geometric properties of the instrument."

This sequence shows Venus receding as

Messenger flew away on June 5-6.

Another series of images released today shows Venus receding in Messenger's rear-view mirror over a 25-hour-plus period on June 5 and 6. "These images provide a spectacular goodbye to the cloud-shrouded planet while also providing valuable data to the camera calibration team," Robinson said.

He said a preliminary analysis of the images indicated that "the cameras are healthy and will be ready for next January's close encounter with Mercury."

The Messenger spacecraft was launched in 2004 and made its first Venus flyby last October. This month's encounter was the second Venus flyby. January's encounter will be Messenger's first brush with Mercury - additional flybys are scheduled in October 2008 and September 2009, with the probe settling into orbit around the first rock from the sun in March 2011.

The mission is being managed by Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory on NASA's behalf.

The images released today may be the first from this month's flyby, but they won't be the last. Solomon promised that the science team would release further data "as fast as we can." So stay tuned for still more Venusian views - and mark your calendar for the probe's Jan. 14 date with Mercury.