Officials from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) released early Tuesday morning the very first picture of the surface of the planet Mercury taken by the spacecraft Messenger.
"This image is the first ever obtained from a spacecraft in orbit about the solar system's innermost planet," NASA announced as it showed a picture of the planet's south pole which was taken by the spacecraft at 5:20am EDT. It was received by the mission team at John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory located in Laurel, Maryland. The upper part of the image shows a dark-rayed crater which officials from NASA called Debussy. The lower part of the image shows a portion of the planet's south pole.
An additional 363 other images of the planet were taken by the spacecraft over the next six hours. The rest of the images taken by the spacecraft will be released to the public in a press conference set on Wednesday at 2:00pm EDT.
"It's early to speak about the geological details," Sean Solomon—the mission's principal investigator—told the Los Angeles Times. "We will be poring over those details for a while."
The US Messenger—whose name stands for Mercury Surface Space Environment Geochemistry and Ranging—is the first NASA craft to enter the orbit of Mercury. Since it entered the planet's orbit on March 17, 2011, it has already mapped 98% of the planet's surface. These initial images are part of the commissioning phase to make sure that all of the instruments on the craft are working. The more detailed phase of the mission will begin on April 4 this year and is set to circle the planet for a year, surveying its hot, rocky surface.
Scientists anticipate that the data that will be provided by the spacecraft will contain a wealth of information never before captured by the occasional glimpses caught by fly-by missions, and the Mariner missions launched more than three decades ago.