Early this morning, while most of us were still asleep, NASA launched its MESSENGER probe to the planet Mercury
. The craft will make several flybys of Mercury, Venus and Earth over the next few years to obtain gravity boosts, then insert itself into Mercury's orbit in March 2011. Once in orbit, MESSENGER will proceed to map the entire planet, as well as learn more about its geography and magnetic field.
This is the first mission to Mercury since Mariner 10 first explored Mercury in the 1970s. Even then, the photographic record of the planet's surface was incomplete.
to see an MPEG video of MESSENGER entering Mercury's orbit.