Monday, April 04, 2011

Hot then cold, ready for your close up, Mr Mercury

He's really hot, really cold, maybe even a bit icy. He is the planet Mercury and this month he is ready for his extended close-up.

On Wednesday, NASA showed the first pictures taken by its Mercury Messenger spacecraft, which entered the planet's orbit on March 17.

Messenger will spend at least a year photographing, measuring and studying Mercury, which for now is the last frontier of planetary exploration.
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''This is the last of the classical planets, the planets known to the astronomers of Egypt and Greece and Rome and the Far East,'' the principal investigator, Sean Solomon of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, said.

It ''captivated the imagination and the attention of astronomers for millennia'', Dr Solomon said, but science had never had such a front-row seat. ''We're there now.''

The space agency has sent orbiters to five planets - Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn - but it probably will take a decade or two before a spacecraft orbits Uranus or Neptune. (In 2015, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will zoom past Pluto - which is no longer regarded as a planet.)

Half a dozen fly-bys by NASA probes - three by Mariner 10 in the 1970s and three by Messenger in the past three years - have seen Mercury close up, though briefly.

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