MESSENGER image of comet 2P/Encke during its closest approach to Mercury. At that time, Encke was approximately 2.3 million miles (3.7 million kilometers) from MESSENGER and 32.7 million miles (52.6 million kilometers) from the Sun. The image is 7° by 4.7° in size and has been slightly smoothed to enhance the faint tail of the comet. The tail was oriented nearly side on to MESSENGER in this image and is seen to stretch several degrees from the comet's bright coma in the direction away from the Sun.
MESSENGER's cameras have been acquiring targeted observations (watch an animation here) of Encke since October 28 and ISON since October 26, although the first faint detections didn't come until early November. During the closest approach of each comet to Mercury, the Mercury Atmospheric and Surface Composition Spectrometer (MASCS) and X-Ray Spectrometer (XRS) instruments also targeted the comets. Observations of ISON conclude on November 26, when the comet passes too close to the Sun, but MESSENGER will continue to monitor Encke with both the imagers and spectrometers through early December. Read this mission news story for more details.
Date acquired: 22:56 UTC on November 17, 2013
Instrument: Wide Angle Camera (WAC) of the Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS)
Photo credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington/Southwest Research Institute
Note: For more information, see PIA17693: MESSENGER's First Images of Comets Encke and ISON and Two Comets to Fly By Mercury.