NASA's MESSENGER probe is on a mission to study Mercury, the closest planet to our Sun. A month from now, on March 17th, it will enter orbit around Mercury. This will be the first mission to orbit Mercury, and will be the first time that we get some Hi-Res maps of the entire globe. We will be learning about a brand new planetary surface. MESSENGER has already done a few fly-bys of Mercury, with some stunning and revealing results.
On its long and epic journey their though, MESSENGER would look back out into space, taking images. What it came up with was a family portrait of our solar system.
|Click to Enlarge. Credit: NASA|
All the planets are there, but unfortunately Uranus and Neptune are much too faint to see. Even though the probe is on its way to Mercury, it looks little more then a dot, because it is still very far away from pretty much everything. Everything looks like a dot from there. But there are some exciting highlights.
Venus is particularly bright because 1) it is the closest planet to the probe besides Mercury and 2) the probe is inside of its orbit, so all that sunlight is being reflected back much like the full Moon. The next planet is Earth, which is amazing, because you can see it accompanied by the Moon, not an image most people have in their heads. And then there's Jupiter, where you can clearly see a few moons. They are fairly large moons, and one of them is probably Ganymede, which is actually about the same size a Mercury! The last exciting thing is the split section between Jupiter and Mars, that fuzzy patch, that is the Milky Way, our galaxy. The Milky Way is so vast, that it appears the same from here on Earth and millions of kilometers away where MESSENGER is.
This is a nice humbling reminder of our solar system as a unit in the vastness of the Universe. In a way, it is our new Pale Blue Dot. A view of our solar system as we just begin to leave the Earth and explore our little neighborhood, the solar system. Carl Sagan would be proud.
This is also a great time for this picture to be released to, because right now is NASA's Year of the Solar System. Celebrating all the missions for solar exploration going on right now, and there are a lot of them. From Mercury to Pluto, there is something going on. It is going to be a pretty exciting year (actual a Martian year, for a total of 23 months) of space exploration and lots of great new discoveries. It's exciting to be part of humanity entering this new level.