|A view of the horizon of Mercury, taken by NASA's |
Messenger spacecraft on March 29, 2011.
The picture shows a stretch of land about
750 miles long, from top to bottom.
"We're really seeing Mercury now with new eyes," Messenger principal investigator Sean Solomon, of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, told reporters. "As a result, an entire global perspective is unfolding, and will continue to unfold over the next few months."
One of the biggest mysteries that is hoped to be examined is whether there is water ice in protected polar craters.
Mercury's surface can reach 842 degrees Fahrenheit while it faces the sun. However, it is believed the water ice may be in craters near the poles that are permanently shaded. Radar evidence and some models that astronomers run indicate that the possibility is real.
"Could ice be trapped there? The thermal models say yes, it's possible," Solomon said. "But is it water ice? There are alternative ideas."
Some of these alternate ideas may be other non-water forms of ice such as frozen carbon dioxide, like what is found on Mars.
Messenger is an acronym for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging. Over the next year or so, Messenger will take pictures (they are hoping to get an absurd 75,000 images of the surface of the planet), study Mercury with its seven instruments, and help scientists better understand its composition, the thin atmosphere it has, and its geologic history.
The $446 million Messenger probe left Earth in August 2004. The probe is now in an elliptical orbit around Mercury that brings it within 124 miles (200 kilometers) of Mercury at the closest point and retreats to more than 9,300 miles (15,000 km) away at the farthest point.
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