In a historic moment for NASA, the MESSENGER spacecraft has delivered the first pictures ever taken from orbit around the planet Mercury. Among the haul, released Wednesday, is this wide-angle, false-color view of dark impact craters crossed by the bright stripes of material long ago ejected from Hokusai Crater (not pictured).
For decades our solar system's innermost planet had been something of a mystery, since only one mission—Mariner 10—had taken closeup pictures of the tiny world in visible light. During a series of flybys in the 1970s, Mariner 10 captured less than half of Mercury's surface.
But in 2008 the MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) craft made its initial approach to the planet, snapping some of the first pictures of regions of Mercury not seen before by human eyes. The craft conducted three flybys of the planet before settling into Mercury's orbit on March 17.
Overall, MESSENGER is expected to return thousands of images during its year-long mission to probe Mercury's secrets. (Find out more about MESSENGER's scientific goals.)