A new image from MESSENGER, released today March 30, 2011, shows relatively smooth plains near Mercury’s north pole dotted by some relatively large craters. Seen at an oblique angle, the low angle of sunlight emphasizes the relief of the terrain.
This area has never been imaged before by spacecraft.
During a press conference held today, scientists on the MESSENGER mission team suggested that Mercury may hold water ice on its surface, perhaps within permanently-shadowed polar craters like the ones seen here….not unlike our own moon. Strange to think that there may be ice on a planet orbiting so close to the Sun! But with no thick atmosphere to spread the intense 800ºF daytime heat of the Sun, night-side and shadowed regions on Mercury can easily dip down to -300ºF temperatures…plenty cold enough for water to remain well frozen!
See more newly-released images from MESSENGER here.
On March 17, 2011 (March 18, 2011, UTC), MESSENGER became the first spacecraft ever to orbit the planet Mercury. The mission is currently in its commissioning phase, during which spacecraft and instrument performance are verified through a series of specially designed checkout activities. In the course of the one-year primary mission, the spacecraft’s seven scientific instruments and radio science investigation will unravel the history and evolution of the Solar System’s innermost planet.
Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington