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Historic image of Mercury sent back to Earth

First-ever shot sent back by NASA's Messenger spacecraft of the planet Mercury NASA

Mark the time and date: 5:20 am EDT on Mar. 29, 2011. For the first time, a NASA spacecraft in orbit around Mercury has sent back an image of our solar system's innermost planet.

It won't be the only one - the Messenger craft took another 363 images, according to NASA, before downlinking some of that data to Earth. Over the course of the next year, the craft is expected to take 70,000 to 75,000 photographs as Messenger sets about its assigned task of mapping the planet's entire surface.

The standout feature in an otherwise featureless south pole region displayed in the Messenger image is the 50-mile wide crater called Debussy (in the upper right of the image.) Even if the photo may is not particularly arresting at first blush, NASA officials have to be ecstatic that everything's in working order after the craft's six-and-a-half year journey to reach Mercury. Interestingly, the close-up looks a lot like the Earth's moon.

You can keep track of the Messenger mission at a website NASA has set up here. The agency has scheduled a press conference for Wednesday, where officials may likely share more photos sent back to Earth.