NASA has released a new image and scientific findings from the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury, the innermost and smallest planet in the Solar System.

According to NASA, this image is obtained from Messenger spacecraft in orbit about Mercury. Messenger, which stands for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging, conducted more than a dozen laps through the inner solar system for six years prior to achieving the historic orbit insertion on March 17.

The Messenger team is currently looking over the newly returned data, which are still continuing to come down.

In the image, the dominant rayed crater in the upper portion of the image is Debussy. The smaller crater Matabei with its unusual dark rays is visible to the west of Debussy. The bottom portion of this image is near Mercury's South Pole and includes a region of Mercury's surface not previously seen by spacecraft.

Over the next three days, Messenger is expected to acquire 1185 additional images in support of Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS) commissioning-phase activities. The year-long primary science phase of the mission will begin on April 4, and the orbital observation plan calls for MDIS to acquire more than 75,000 images in support of Messenger's science goals.

MDIS has wide- and narrow-angle cameras - both based on charge-coupled devices, similar to those found in digital cameras - to map the rugged landforms and spectral variations on Mercury's surface in monochrome, color, and stereo. The imager pivots, giving it the ability to capture images from a wide area without having to re-point the spacecraft and allowing it to follow the stars and other optical navigation guides.

On March 17, 2011, Messenger became the first spacecraft to orbit the planet Mercury. The mission is currently in its commissioning phase, during which spacecraft and instrument performance are verified through a series of specially designed checkout activities.

In the course of the one-year primary mission, the spacecraft's seven scientific instruments and radio science investigation will unravel the history and evolution of the Solar System's innermost planet.

Despite its proximity to Earth, the planet Mercury has for decades been comparatively unexplored, said Messenger Principal Investigator Sean Solomon in a statement in March. For the first time in history, a scientific observatory is in orbit about our solar system's innermost planet. Mercury's secrets, and the implications they hold for the formation and evolution of Earth-like planets, are about to be revealed.

Mercury, which orbits the Sun once every 87.969 Earth days, is an extreme, the smallest, the densest (after correcting for self-compression), the one with the oldest surface, the one with the largest daily variations in surface temperature, and the least explored.

The first of two spacecraft to visit Mercury was Mariner 10, which mapped about 45 percent of the planet's surface from 1974 to 1975. The second is the Messenger spacecraft, which attained orbit around Mercury on March 17, 2011, where it will begin mapping the rest of the planet.

Messenger will investigate the geologic history of Mercury in great detail, including the portions of the planet never seen by Mariner 10, and will measure the composition of Mercury's thin exosphere, providing insights into the processes that are responsible for its existence.

Also, Mercury has a global internal magnetic field, as does Earth, but Mars and Venus do not. By characterizing Mercury's magnetic field, Messenger will help answer the question of why the inner planets differ in their magnetic histories.

As a result, understanding Mercury among the terrestrial planets is crucial to developing a better understanding of how the planets in our Solar System formed and evolved.