As MESSENGER sped by Mercury on January 14, 2008, the Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) of the Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS) captured this shot looking toward Mercury's north pole. The surface shown in this image is from the side of Mercury not previously seen by spacecraft. The top right of this image shows the limb of the planet, which transitions into the terminator (the line between the sunlit, day side and the dark, night side) on the top left of the image. Near the terminator, the Sun illuminates surface features at a low angle, casting long shadows and causing height differences of the surface to appear more prominent in this region.
It is interesting to compare MESSENGER's view to the north with the image looking toward the south pole, released on January 21. Comparing these two images, it can be seen that the terrain near the south pole is more heavily cratered while some of the region near the north pole shows less cratered, smooth plains material, consistent with the general observations of the poles made by Mariner 10. MESSENGER acquired over 1200 images of Mercury's surface during its flyby, and the MESSENGER team is busy examining all of those images in detail, to understand the geologic history of the planet as a whole, from pole to pole.
This image was acquired about 94 minutes after MESSENGER's closest approach to Mercury, when the spacecraft was at a distance of about 32,000 kilometers (20,000 miles).
Mission Elapsed Time (MET) of image: 108830513
Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington