The spacecraft MESSENGER is just three days away from its third encounter with Mercury. The past two have been nothing short of frakkin' amazing, so I'm really looking forward to this final pass. Even though it was 1.3 million kilometers away from the tiny planet on the 25th, it snapped this serene shot:
I love moody astronomical pictures. Here, a crescent Mercury sits in the inky black as MESSENGER screams down on it at 3.3 km/sec (2 miles per second). ON this final pass, the spacecraft will slow enough that it will be able to enter orbit around Mercury in March 2011. The nominal lifespan of the mission will be for one solid (Earth) year of observations, and will map the planet with 18 meter resolution. That's the size of a house.
That is so going to rock. But that's 1.5 years away, and we're still waiting on this third pass. I hope to be able to post pix when they come in, but I'm traveling to the UK for TAM London not long after, so we'll see. But you can always keep an eye on the MESSENGER website, as well as Emily Lakdawalla's blog. They'll be up-to-date... especially, if I know her, Emily, who will be spending the flyby looming over her keyboard and hitting "refresh" every 30 seconds or so.