“The surface of the planet Mercury has been completely mapped for the first time in history, scientists say. The closest planet to the sun hasn’t received as much scientific attention as some of its more flashy solar system neighbors, such as Mars, but NASA’s Messenger spacecraft is helping to close the gap. The probe has been in orbit around Mercury since March 2011, and its team announced Feb. 28 that the spacecraft had finished mapping the planet’s surface.
“We can now say we have imaged every square meter of Mercury’s surface from orbit,” said Messenger principal investigator Sean Solomon of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. “Admittedly, some regions are in permanent shadow, but we’re actually peering into those shadows with our imaging systems.”
Before Messenger, less than half the surface had been imaged by NASA’s Mariner 10 spacecraft, which made several flybys of Mercury in 1974 and 1975. Messenger is the first probe to orbit the planet. In addition to photographing the unseen parts of Mercury, the spacecraft substantially improved on the resolution of existing maps.
The Messenger spacecraft’s primary mission ran through March 2012, but it was granted a one-year extension to operate until March 2013. Now the Messenger mission science team is hoping NASA will approve a second mission extension for two more years, that would last until the spacecraft runs out of fuel and crashes into Mercury’s surface.”
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