Astronomy Picture of the Day
APOD: 2017 December 11 - Mercury Visualized from MESSENGER
Explanation: What would it be like to fly over the planet Mercury? Images and data taken from NASA's robotic MESSENGER spacecraft that orbited Mercury from 2011 to 2015 have been digitally combined to envision a virtual flight that highlights much of the hot planet's surface. In general, the Solar System's innermost world appears similar to Earth's Moon as it is covered by a heavily cratered gray terrain. MESSENGER discovered much about Mercury including that shadows near its poles likely host water ice. The featured video opens as Mercury is viewed from the Sun-facing side and concludes with the virtual spacecraft retreating into Mercury's night. Mercury actually rotates so slowly that it only completes three rotations for every two trips around the Sun. In 2018, Europe and Japan plan to launch BepiColombo to better map Mercury's surface and probe its magnetic field.
APOD: 2017 July 23 - Mercury as Revealed by MESSENGER
Explanation: Mercury had never been seen like this before. In 2008, the robotic MESSENGER spacecraft buzzed past Mercury for the second time and imaged terrain mapped previously only by comparatively crude radar. The featured image was recorded as MESSENGER looked back 90 minutes after passing, from an altitude of about 27,000 kilometers. Visible in the image, among many other newly imaged features, are unusually long rays that appear to run like meridians of longitude out from a young crater near the northern limb. MESSENGER entered orbit around Mercury in 2011 and finished its primary mission in 2012, but took detailed measurements until 2015, at which time it ran out of fuel and so was instructed to impact Mercury's surface.
APOD: 2015 May 5 - Gravitational Anomalies of Mercury
Explanation: What's that under the surface of Mercury? The robotic MESSENGER spacecraft that had been orbiting planet Mercury for the past four years had been transmitting its data back to Earth with radio waves of very precise energy. The planet's gravity, however, slightly changed this energy when measured on Earth, which enabled the reconstruction of a gravity map of unprecedented precision. Here gravitational anomalies are shown in false-color, superposed on an image of the planet's cratered surface. Red hues indicate areas of slightly higher gravity, which in turn indicates areas that must have unusually dense matter under the surface. The central area is Caloris Basin, a huge impact feature measuring about 1,500 kilometers across. Last week, after completing its mission and running low on fuel, MESSENGER was purposely crashed onto Mercury's surface.
APOD: 2015 May 1 - MESSENGER's Last Day on Mercury
Explanation: The first to orbit Mercury, the MESSENGER spacecraft came to rest on this region of Mercury's surface yesterday. Constructed from MESSENGER image and laser altimeter data, the scene looks north over the northeastern rim of the broad, lava filled Shakespeare basin. The large, 48 kilometer (30 mile) wide crater Janacek is near the upper left edge. Terrain height is color coded with red regions about 3 kilometers above blue ones. MESSENGER'S final orbit was predicted to end near the center, with the spacecraft impacting the surface at nearly 4 kilometers per second (over 8,700 miles per hour) and creating a new crater about 16 meters (52 feet) in diameter. The impact on the far side of Mercury was not observed by telescopes, but confirmed when no signal was detected from the spacecraft given time to emerge from behind the planet. Launched in 2004, the MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemisty and Ranging spacecraft completed over 4,000 orbits after reaching the Solar System's innermost planet in 2011.
APOD: 2015 April 18 - The Great Crater Hokusai
Explanation: One of the largest young craters on Mercury, 114 kilometer (71 mile) diameter Hokusai crater's bright rays are known to extend across much of the planet. But this mosaic of oblique views focuses on Hokusai close up, its sunlit central peaks, terraced crater walls, and frozen sea of impact melt on the crater's floor. The images were captured by the MESSENGER spacecraft. The first to orbit Mercury, since 2011 MESSENGER has conducted scientific explorations, including extensive imaging of the Solar System's innermost planet. Now running out of propellant and unable to counter orbital perturbations caused by the Sun's gravity, MESSENGER is predicted to impact the surface of Mercury on April 30.
APOD: 2015 March 5 - Enhanced Color Caloris
Explanation: The sprawling Caloris basin on Mercury is one of the solar system's largest impact basins, created during the early history of the solar system by the impact of a large asteroid-sized body. The multi-featured, fractured basin spans about 1,500 kilometers in this enhanced color mosaic based on image data from the Mercury-orbiting MESSENGER spacecraft. Mercury's youngest large impact basin, Caloris was subsequently filled in by lavas that appear orange in the mosaic. Craters made after the flooding have excavated material from beneath the surface lavas. Seen as contrasting blue hues, they likely offer a glimpse of the original basin floor material. Analysis of these craters suggests the thickness of the covering volcanic lava to be 2.5-3.5 kilometers. Orange splotches around the basin's perimeter are thought to be volcanic vents.
APOD: 2013 August 5 - Leaving Earth
Explanation: What it would look like to leave planet Earth? Such an event was recorded visually in great detail by the MESSENGER spacecraft as it swung back past the Earth, eight years ago, on its way in toward the planet Mercury. Earth can be seen rotating in this time-lapse video, as it recedes into the distance. The sunlit half of Earth is so bright that background stars are not visible. The robotic MESSENGER spacecraft is now in orbit around Mercury and has recently concluded the first complete map of the surface. On occasion, MESSENGER has continued to peer back at its home world. MESSENGER is one of the few things created on the Earth that has left and will never return -- at the end of its mission MESSENGER will be crashed into Mercury's surface.
APOD: 2013 July 23 - Two Views of Earth
Explanation: In a cross-Solar System interplanetary first, our Earth was photographed during the same day from both Mercury and Saturn. Pictured on the left, Earth is the pale blue dot just below the rings of Saturn, as captured by the robotic Cassini spacecraft now orbiting the gas giant. Pictured on the right, the Earth-Moon system is seen against a dark background, as captured by the robotic MESSENGER spacecraft now orbiting Mercury. In the MESSENGER image, the Earth (left) and Moon (right) shine brightly with reflected sunlight. MESSENGER took the overexposed image last Friday as part of a search for small natural satellites of the innermost planet, moons that would be expected to be quite dim. During this same day, humans across planet Earth snapped many of their own pictures of Saturn.
APOD: 2013 July 20 - Comet Lemmon and the Deep Sky
Explanation: Now sweeping high above the ecliptic plane, Comet Lemmon has faded dramatically in planet Earth's night sky as it heads for the outer solar system. Some 16 light-minutes (2 AU) from the Sun, it still sports a greenish coma though, posing on the right in this 4 degree wide telescopic view from last Saturday with deep sky star clusters and nebulae in Cassiopeia. In fact, the rich background skyscape is typical within the boundaries of the boastful northern constellation that lie along the crowded starfields of the Milky Way. Included near center is open star cluster M52 about 5,000 light-years away. Around 11,000 light-years distant, the red glowing nebula NGC 7635 below and left of M52 is well-known for its appearance in close-up images as the Bubble Nebula. But the fading Comet Lemmon is not the only foreground object on the scene. A faint streak on the right is an orbiting satellite caught crossing through the field during the long exposure, glinting in the sunlight and winking out as it passes into Earth's shadow.
APOD: 2013 July 19 - Take a Picture of Saturn
Explanation: Take a picture of Saturn in the sky tonight. You could capture a view like this one. Recorded just last month looking toward the south, planet Earth and ruins of the ancient temple of Athena at Assos, Turkey are in the foreground. The Moon rises at the far left of the frame and Saturn is the bright "star" at the upper right, near Virgo's alpha star Spica (picture with labels). If you do take a picture of Saturn or wave at Saturn and take a picture, you can share it online and submit it to the Saturn Mosaic Project. Why take a picture tonight? Because the Cassini spacecraft will be orbiting Saturn and taking a picture of you.
APOD: 2013 June 12 - All of Mercury
Explanation: For the first time, the entire surface of planet Mercury has been mapped. Detailed observations of the innermost planet's surprising crust have been ongoing since the robotic MESSENGER spacecraft first passed Mercury in 2008 and began orbiting in 2011. Previously, much of the Mercury's surface was unknown as it is too far for Earth-bound telescopes to see clearly, while the Mariner 10 flybys in the 1970s observed only about half. The above video is a compilation of thousands of images of Mercury rendered in exaggerated colors to better contrast different surface features. Visible on the rotating world are rays emanating from a northern impact that stretch across much of the planet, while about half-way through the video the light colored Caloris Basin rotates into view, a northern ancient impact feature that filled with lava. MESSENGER has now successfully completed its primary and first extended missions.
APOD: 2013 March 1 - Colors of Mercury
Explanation: The colors of the solar system's innermost planet are enhanced in this tantalizing view, based on global image data from the Mercury-orbiting MESSENGER spacecraft. Human eyes would not discern the clear color differences but they are real none the less, indicating distinct chemical, mineralogical, and physical regions across the cratered surface. Notable at the upper right, Mercury's large, circular, tan colored feature known as the Caloris basin was created by an impacting comet or asteroid during the solar system's early years. The ancient basin was subsequently flooded with lava from volcanic activity, analogous to the formation of the lunar maria. Color contrasts also make the light blue and white young crater rays, material blasted out by recent impacts, easy to follow as they extend across a darker blue, low reflectance terrain.
APOD: 2012 December 1 - Northern Mercury
Explanation: Innermost planet Mercury would probably not be a good location for an interplanetary winter olympics. But new results based on data from the Mercury orbiting MESSENGER spacecraft indicate that it does have substantial water ice in permanently shadowed regions within craters near its north pole. The possibility of ice on Mercury has been entertained for years, inspired by the discovery of radar bright, hence highly reflective, regions near the north pole. Highlighted in yellow in this map based on projected MESSENGER images, radar bright regions are seen to correspond with floors and walls of north polar impact craters. Farther from the pole the regions are concentrated on the north facing crater walls. MESSENGER's neutron spectroscopy and thermal models for the craters indicate material in these regions has a hydrogen content consistent with nearly pure water ice and is trapped in an area with temperatures that remain below 100 kelvins (-280 deg.F, -173 deg.C). In circumstances similar to permanent shadows in craters of the Moon, debris from comet impacts is thought to be the source of ice on Mercury.
APOD: 2012 March 27 - Unusual Hollows Discovered on Planet Mercury
Explanation: What are those unusual features on planet Mercury? The slightly bluish tinge of features dubbed hollows has been exaggerated on the above image by the robotic MESSENGER spacecraft currently orbiting Mercury. The rounded depressions appear different than impact craters and nothing like them has been noted on Earth's Moon or anywhere else in the Solar System. The above image is a section of the floor of Raditladi impact basin about 40 kilometers wide that includes the mountains of the central peak. One progenitor hypothesis is that the hollows formed from the sublimation of material exposed and heated during the violent impact that created the Raditladi basin. NASA's MESSENGER is the first spacecraft ever to orbit Mercury, and is currently scheduled to explore the Solar System's innermost planet into 2013.
APOD: 2011 October 8 - MESSENGER's First Day
Explanation: One solar day on a planet is the length of time from noon to noon. A solar day lasts 24 hours on planet Earth. On Mercury a solar day is about 176 Earth days long. And during its first Mercury solar day in orbit the MESSENGER spacecraft has imaged nearly the entire surface of the innermost planet to generate a global monochrome map at 250 meters per pixel resolution and a 1 kilometer per pixel resolution color map. Examples of the maps, mosaics constructed from thousands of images made under uniform lighting conditions, are shown (monochrome at left), both centered along the planet's 75 degrees East longitude meridian. The MESSENGER spacecraft's second Mercury solar day will likely include more high resolution targeted observations of the planet's surface features. (Editor's note: Due to Mercury's 3:2 spin-orbit resonance, a Mercury solar day is 2 Mercury years long.)
APOD: 2011 August 1 - Shuttle Reentry Streak from Orbit
Explanation: What's that strange bright streak? It is the last image ever of a space shuttle from orbit. A week and a half ago, after decoupling from the International Space Station, the Space Shuttle Atlantis fired its rockets for the last time, lost its orbital speed, and plummeted back to Earth. Within the next hour, however, the sophisticated space machine dropped its landing gear and did what used to be unprecedented -- landed like an airplane on a runway. Although the future of human space flight from the USA will enter a temporary lull, many robotic spacecraft continue to explore our Solar System and peer into our universe, including Cassini, Chandra, Chang'e 2, Dawn, Fermi, Hubble, Kepler, LRO, Mars Express, Messenger, MRO, New Horizons, Opportunity, Planck, Rosetta, SDO, SOHO, Spitzer, STEREO, Swift, Venus-Express, and WISE.
APOD: 2011 June 22 - MESSENGER's Degas View
Explanation: Now imaging inner planet Mercury from orbit, the MESSENGER spacecraft wide angle camera has returned this impressive color view of Degas Crater, with a full resolution of 90 meters per pixel. Named for the impressionist painter, the 52 kilometer diameter crater is also shown in an inset context image from the Mariner 10 flyby mission in the mid 1970s. In MESSENGER's view, the crater floor is seen to be filled with an intricate series of cracks, formed as the molten surface resulting from the impact cooled and contracted. Starkly bright, patchy deposits, suggesting compositional differences and freshly exposed material, standout around the crater's central peaks and walls. Details of similar bright deposits are seen in even higher resolution images from MESSENGER.
APOD: 2011 June 16 - Mercury's Surface in Exaggerated Color
Explanation: The robotic MESSENGER spacecraft recently completed over 100 orbits of Mercury. MESSENGER's cameras have recorded detailed pictures utilizing eight different colors across visible and near infrared light, exploring the surface composition and looking for clues to the history and evolution of the solar system's innermost planet. This sharp image combines three of the MESSENGER wide angle camera's colors, but in exaggerated fashion. Otherwise, to the unaided human eye, Mercury's surface colors would appear comparatively muted. The image is about 1,000 kilometers across and features as small as a single kilometer are discernible at the original resolution. Today, the MESSENGER project will release new images and science findings from the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury.
APOD: 2011 March 31 - MESSENGER at Mercury
Explanation: On March 17, the MESSENGER spacecraft became the first to orbit Mercury, the solar system's innermost planet. This is its first processed color image since entering Mercury orbit. Larger, denser, and with almost twice the surface gravity of Earth's moon, Mercury still looks moon-like at first glance. But in this view its terrain shows light blue and brown areas near craters and long bright rays of material streaking the surface. The prominent bright ray crater Debussy at the upper right is 80 kilometers (50 miles) in diameter. Terrain toward the bottom of the historic image extends to Mercury's south pole and includes a region not previously imaged from space.
APOD: 2011 March 18 - Mercury and Jupiter at Sunset
Explanation: When warm sunset hues begin to fade, two celestial beacons now shine in the evening twilight, Mercury and Jupiter. Wandering away from the Sun in planet Earth's sky, Mercury will offer good views this month as spring approaches in the northern hemisphere where the ecliptic plane makes a steep angle with the western horizon. But Jupiter will continue sinking lower in the sky after sunset. In fact, the normally elusive Mercury shines well above Jupiter and the orange sunset glow in this serene sky. Captured earlier this week from the island of of Frösön in northern Sweden, the scene looks across Lake Storsjön toward the village of Hallen and distant mountains. Of course, even better views of Mercury can be had by the MESSENGER spacecraft, now orbiting the Solar System's innermost planet!
APOD: 2011 February 23 - The Solar System from MESSENGER
Explanation: If you looked out from the center of the Solar System, what would you see? Nearly such a view was taken recently from the MESSENGER spacecraft currently orbiting the Sun from the distance of Mercury. The Sun's planets all appear as points of light, with the closest and largest planets appearing the brightest. The planets all appear to orbit in the same direction and are (nearly) confined to the same great circle around the sky -- the ecliptic plane. Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn are all visible in the above horizontally compressed image, while the positions of Uranus and Neptune are labeled even though they are too faint to make out. Pluto, which has had its planetary status recently called into question, is much too faint to see. Earth's Moon is visible, however, as are the Galilean moons of Jupiter. The above image is the reverse of one taken from the outside of the Solar System in 1990 by Voyager 1. MESSENGER, which has flown by Mercury three times now, is on schedule to enter orbit around the Solar System's innermost planet next month.
APOD: 2010 September 1 - Earth and Moon from MESSENGER
Explanation: What does Earth look like from the planet Mercury? The robotic spacecraft MESSENGER found out as it looked toward the Earth during its closest approach to the Sun about three months ago. The Earth and Moon are visible as the double spot on the lower left of the above image. Now MESSENGER was not at Mercury when it took the above image, but at a location from which the view would be similar. From Mercury, both the Earth and its comparatively large moon will always appear as small circles of reflected sunlight and will never show a crescent phase. MESSENGER has zipped right by Mercury three times since being launched in 2004, and is scheduled to enter orbit around the innermost planet in March of 2011.
APOD: 2009 October 7 - A Double Ringed Basin on Mercury
Explanation: What caused the smooth floor inside the double ringed basin on Mercury? No one is sure. The unusual feature spans 160 kilometers and was imaged during the robotic MESSENGER spacecraft's swing past our Solar System's innermost planet last week. Double and multiple ringed basins, although rare, have also been imaged in years past on Mars, Venus, Earth, and Earth's Moon. Mercury itself has several doubles, including huge Caloris basin, Rembrandt basin, and enigmatic Raditladi basin. Most large multiple ringed basins on planets and moons are caused initially by a forceful impact by a single asteroid or comet fragment. One interesting feature of the above-imaged double ring is that the basin center appears much smoother than the region between the rings. Possibly, the internal floor was smoothed by later volcanic activity. Also possible, however, is that the floor was smoothed by melting and flowing of material upon impact. MESSENGER has now completed its last flyby of Mercury but will return and attempt to enter orbit in 2011 March.
APOD: 2009 July 6 - Unknown Dark Material on Mercury
Explanation: What is that strange material on Mercury? When flying by Mercury last October, the robotic MESSENGER spacecraft imaged much of the solar system's innermost planet in unprecedented detail. As common in science, new data bring new mysteries. Pictured above on the lower right, a large crater -- about 100 kilometers across -- has unusual dark material of unknown composition near its center. The material's darkness does not appear to be caused by shadows, as the Sun was near zenith when the image was taken. One origin hypothesis is that the dark material was uncovered from beneath Mercury's surface during the impact that created the surrounding crater. If so, the composition of the dark mound might be similar to the composition of some mysterious dark rings also recently discovered on Mercury. Alternatively, the dark material could be related to an unusual composition of the impacting rock. MESSENGER will buzz past Mercury again later this year before entering orbit in 2011.
APOD: 2009 May 27 - Volcanic Terrain on Mercury
Explanation: Why are many large craters on Mercury relatively smooth inside? Recent images from the robotic MESSENGER spacecraft that flew by Mercury last October show previously uncharted regions of Mercury that have large craters with an internal smoothness similar to the maria on Earth's own Moon. Therefore, like our Moon's maria, these craters on Mercury are thought to have been flooded by lava floes that are old but not as old as the surrounding more highly cratered surface. The above image mosaic of the western limb of Mercury was created by MESSENGER as it approached the Solar System's innermost planet last October. Old and heavily textured terrain runs across much of the image bottom, while across the middle left lies comparatively smooth impact basins where small craters may appear similar at first to protruding hills. MESSENGER will buzz past Mercury again later this year before entering orbit in 2011.
APOD: 2009 May 4 - Rembrandt Impact Basin on Mercury
Explanation: Why do portions of this huge crater on Mercury have so much iron? The unusual Rembrandt impact basin was discovered recently in images taken during the robotic MESSENGER spacecraft's 2008 October flyby of the Solar System's innermost planet. The unusual Rembrandt spans over 700 kilometers and at 4 billion years old is possibly the youngest large impact basin on the planet. Multicolored images of the crater floor, however, indicate reflections from areas containing unusually high amounts of iron and titanium. These elements indicate that some exposed materials have not been covered by more recent lava floes, and so might originate from an epoch of Mercury's formation. Data from Rembrandt and across Mercury are now being interpreted as indicating a relatively active and volcanic past for Mercury that includes surface tectonics. Close inspection of the above image will reveal rings of Mercury's Rembrandt impact basin circling around the image center. Mercury's limb is visible on the upper left, high cliffs and small craters are visible inside Rembrandt, and the terminator between night and day runs diagonally through the image. MESSENGER is on track to fly past Mercury again this September and enter orbit around Mercury in 2011.
APOD: 2008 November 3 - A Spectacular Rayed Crater on Mercury
Explanation: Why does Mercury have so many rayed craters? No one is sure. The robotic MESSENGER spacecraft that is taking unprecedented images as it swoops past the innermost planet has provided dramatic confirmation that Mercury has more rayed craters than Earth's Moon. Pictured above, a particularly spectacular rayed crater spanning approximately 80 kilometers was imaged by MESSENGER during last month's flyby from about 20,000 kilometers up. The rays prevalence is a mystery because space weathering effects such as dust accumulation and solar wind attenuation should be greater on Mercury than on the Moon. Hypothesized solutions currently include the optical properties of Mercurian dust, and that Mercury's high mass and proximity to the Sun cause more violent impacts, thus typically raising more light material. MESSENGER will buzz past Mercury again next year before entering orbit in 2011.
APOD: 2008 October 8 - Mercury as Revealed by MESSENGER
Explanation: The planet Mercury has been known since history has been recorded, but parts of the Solar System's innermost planet have never been seen like this before. Two days ago the robotic MESSENGER spacecraft buzzed past Mercury for the second time and imaged terrain mapped previously only by comparatively crude radar. The above image was recorded as MESSENGER looked back 90 minutes after passing, from an altitude of about 27,000 kilometers. Visible in the above image, among many other newly imaged features, are unusually long rays that appear to run like meridians of longitude out from a young crater near the northern limb. MESSENGER is scheduled to fly past Mercury once more before firing its thrusters to enter orbit in 2011.
APOD: 2008 July 10 - Enhanced Color Caloris
Explanation: The sprawling Caloris basin on Mercury is one of the solar system's largest impact basins. Created during the early history of the solar system by the impact of a large asteroid-sized body, the basin spans about 1,500 kilometers and is seen in yellowish hues in this enhanced color mosaic. The image data is from the January 14th flyby of the MESSENGER spacecraft, captured with the MDIS instrument. Orange splotches around the basin's perimeter are now thought to be volcanic vents, new evidence that Mercury's smooth plains are indeed lava flows. Other discoveries at Mercury by NASA's MESSENGER mission include evidence that Mercury, like planet Earth, has a global magnetic field generated by a dynamo process in its large core, and that Mercury's surface has contracted significantly as its core cooled.
APOD: 2008 March 19 - Mercury in Accentuated Color
Explanation: The colors of Mercury are subtle but beautiful. At first glance, our Solar System's innermost planet appears simply black and white, but images that include infrared colors normally beyond human vision accentuate a world of detail. One such image, shown above, was acquired by the robotic MESSENGER spacecraft that swung by Mercury in mid-January. Here, most generally, the hot world itself acquires a slightly more brown hue. Many craters that appear on top of other craters -- and so surely have formed more recently -- appear here as bright with bright rays that include a slightly blue tint, indicating that soil upended during the impact was light in color. A few craters, such as some in the huge Caloris Basin impact feature visible on the upper right, appear unexpectedly to be ringed with a dark material, the nature of which is being researched. MESSENGER continues to glide through the inner Solar System and will pass Mercury again this October and next September, before entering orbit around the desolate world in 2011.
APOD: 2008 February 4 - A Spider Shaped Crater on Mercury
Explanation: Why does this crater on Mercury look like a spider? When the robotic MESSENGER spacecraft glided by the planet Mercury last month, it was able to image portions of the Sun's closest planet that had never been seen before. When imaging the center of Mercury's extremely large Caloris Basin, MESSENGER found a crater, pictured above, with a set of unusual rays emanating out from its center. A crater with such troughs has never been seen before anywhere in our Solar System. What isn't clear is the relation of the crater to the radial troughs. Perhaps the crater created the radial rays, or perhaps the two features appear only by a chance superposition -- the topic is sure to be one of future research. MESSENGER is scheduled to fly past Mercury twice more before firing its thrusters to enter orbit in 2011.
APOD: 2008 January 26 - Crescent Mercury in Color
Explanation: Hard to spot against the twilight glow near planet Earth's horizon, a crescent Mercury was imaged close up by the MESSENGER spacecraft early last week. Colors in this remarkable picture were created using data recorded through infrared, red, and violet filters. The combination enhances color differences otherwise not visible to the eye across the innermost planet's cratered surface. In this view, light bluish material seems to surround relatively new craters, contrasting with the mostly drab, brown terrain. Mercury itself is 4,880 kilometers in diameter. The full resolution image shows features as small as 10 kilometers across.
APOD: 2008 January 21 - Mercury's Horizon from MESSENGER
Explanation: What would it look like to fly past Mercury? Just such an adventure was experienced last week by the MESSENGER spacecraft during its first flyby of the strange moon-like world nearest the Sun. Pictured above is the limb of Mercury seen by MESSENGER upon approach, from about 1 1/2 Earth diameters away. Visible on the hot and barren planet are many craters, many appeared to be more shallow than similarly sized craters on the Moon. The comparatively high gravity of Mercury helps flatten tall structures like high crater walls. MESSENGER was able to take over 1,000 images of Mercury which will be beamed back to Earth for planetary geologists to study. The robotic MESSENGER spacecraft is scheduled to fly past Mercury twice more before firing its thrusters to enter orbit in 2011.
APOD: 2008 January 16 - MESSENGER Passes Mercury
Explanation: Two days ago, the MESSENGER spacecraft became only the second spacecraft in human history to swoop past Mercury. The last spacecraft to visit the Sun's closest planet was Mariner 10 over 35 years ago. Mariner 10 was not able to photograph Mercury's entire surface, and the images it did send back raised many questions. Therefore, much about planet Mercury remains unknown. This week's flyby of MESSENGER was only the first of three flybys. Over the next few years MESSENGER will swing past twice more and finally enter Mercury's orbit in 2011. MESSENGER is currently moving too fast to enter orbit around Mercury now. The above image was taken two days ago during MESSENGER's flyby and shows part of Mercury's surface that has never been imaged in detail before. Many more detailed images of Mercury are expected to be sent back over the next few days. The data acquired by MESSENGER will hopefully help scientists better understand how Mercury's surface was formed, and why it is so dense.
APOD: 2008 January 12 - Mercury Chases the Sunset
Explanation: This colorful view of the western sky at sunset features last Wednesday's slender crescent Moon. Of course, when the Moon is in its crescent phase it can never be far from the Sun in the sky. Also always close to the Sun in Earth's sky is innermost planet Mercury, seen here below and right of center against the bright orange glow along the horizon. Mercury is usually difficult to glimpse because of overwhelming sunlight, but increasingly better views of the small planet after sunset will be possible as it wanders farther east of the Sun in the coming days. On January 14th, NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft will have a good view too, as it makes its first Mercury flyby.
APOD: 2004 September 12 - Mercury: A Cratered Inferno
Explanation: Mercury's surface looks similar to our Moon's. Each is heavily cratered and made of rock. Mercury's diameter is about 4800 km, while the Moon's is slightly less at about 3500 km (compared with about 12,700 km for the Earth). But Mercury is unique in many ways. Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun, orbiting at about 1/3 the radius of the Earth's orbit. As Mercury slowly rotates, its surface temperature varies from an unbearably cold -180 degrees Celsius to an unbearably hot 400 degrees Celsius. The place nearest the Sun in Mercury's orbit changes slightly each orbit - a fact used by Albert Einstein to help verify the correctness of his then newly discovered theory of gravity: General Relativity. The above picture was taken by the only spacecraft ever to pass Mercury: Mariner 10 in 1974. A new mission, Messenger, launched for Mercury last month and is scheduled to enter orbit around the Solar System's innermost planet in in 2011.
APOD: 2004 August 14 - Messenger Launch
Explanation: Streaking into the early morning sky on August 3rd, a Delta II rocket launches NASA's Messenger spacecraft on an interplanetary voyage to Mercury. Scheduled to become the first probe to orbit Mercury, Messenger will begin by looping through the inner Solar System in a series of close flybys of planet Earth and Venus. The flybys are designed as trajectory changing gravity assist encounters to ultimately achieve the goal of orbiting Mercury in 2011. Prior to entering orbit, Messenger will also flyby Mercury in 2008 and 2009 as the first spacecraft to visit the Solar System's innermost planet since Mariner 10 in the mid 1970s. This dramatic view of the Messenger launch was recorded from a pier in Jetty Park at the north end of Cocoa Beach about 2.5 miles from the Cape Canaveral launch site. So what's that erratic blue streak on the right? It's the reflection from a camera blurred in the time exposure.
APOD: 2000 December 16 - Degas Ray Crater on Mercury
Explanation: Like the Earth's Moon, Mercury is scarred with craters testifying to an intense bombardment during the early history of the Solar System. In 1974, the Mariner 10 spacecraft surveyed this innermost planet up close, producing the only detailed images of its tortured surface. In the above mosaic the bright rays emanating from the 45 kilometer wide Degas crater almost appear to be painted on. The rays consist of light colored material blasted out during the crater's formation. Craters older than Degas are covered by the ray material while younger craters are seen superimposed on the rays. Mercury's gravity and density are about twice that of Earth's Moon so such bright ray craters on the lunar surface tend to be much larger. NASA plans to launch MESSENGER to the least explored terrestrial planet in 2004.
APOD: August 23, 1998 - Vega
Explanation: Vega is a bright blue star 25 light years away. Vega is the brightest star in the Summer Triangle, a group of stars easily visible summer evenings in the northern hemisphere. The name Vega derives from Arabic origins, and means "stone eagle." 4,000 years ago, however, Vega was known by some as "Ma'at" - one example of ancient human astronomical knowledge and language. 14,000 years ago, Vega, not Polaris, was the north star. Vega is the fifth brightest star in the night sky, and has a diameter almost three times that of our Sun. Life bearing planets, rich in liquid water, could possibly exist around Vega. The above picture, taken in January 1997, finds Vega, the Summer Triangle, and Comet Hale-Bopp high above Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
APOD: July 15, 1997 - Vega
Explanation: Vega is a bright blue star 25 light years away. Vega is the brightest star in the Summer Triangle, a group of stars easily visible summer evenings in the northern hemisphere. The name Vega derives from Arabic origins, and means "stone eagle." 4,000 years ago, however, Vega was known by some as "Ma'at" - one example of ancient human astronomical knowledge and language. 14,000 years ago, Vega, not Polaris, was the north star. Vega is the fifth brightest star in the night sky, and has a diameter almost three times that of our Sun. Life bearing planets, rich in liquid water, could possibly exist around Vega. The above picture, taken in January, finds Vega, the Summer Triangle, and Comet Hale-Bopp high above Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.