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US space probe glides over Mercury in first visit since '75

Desktop available - 1024x768 or 1360x768. Image acquired on January 13, 2008, 06:34 UTC. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Jan 14, 2008
The US space probe soared over Mercury on Monday on a mission to unlock the mysteries of the smallest planet of the solar system which was last visited in 1975, NASA said.

The MESSENGER craft flew by Mercury at around 1900 GMT, some 200 kilometers (124 miles) above the closest planet to the sun, to take up-close pictures of uncharted terrain, the US space agency said.

About 55 percent of planet's surface is unknown.

The probe will fly by Mercury two more times, in October 2008 and September 2009, before returning for a final sweep in 2011 when it will enter its orbit for a year-long study of the planet.

The MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging spacecraft, which was launched in 2004, is expected to begin beaming back to Earth some 1,300 images and other data on Tuesday, officials said.

The probe has already flown once past Earth and twice past Venus since its August 2004 launch. It will have travelled 7.8 billion kilometers (4.9 billion miles) when it completes its six and a half year odyssey.

The historic fly-by was the first since the Mariner 10's March 1975 visit, when that spacecraft conducted three flights over the planet. Mariner surveyed only one hemisphere of Mercury, using weaker observational tools.

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Mercury After 33 Years Of Distant Glimpses
Laurel MD (APL) Jan 14, 2008
Today, January 14, 2008, at 19:04:39 UTC (2:04:39 pm EST), MESSENGER will experience its closest approach to Mercury, passing just 200 kilometers (124 miles) above the planet's surface. As the MESSENGER spacecraft continues to speed toward Mercury, the Narrow Angle Camera, part of the Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS) instrument, acquired this crescent view of Mercury.

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