'Han Solo' spotted on Mercury by NASA probe

A human-like figure has been spotted on the surface of Mercury by the orbiting Messenger spacecraft - and scientists point out a startling resemblance to the frozen Han Solo in Return of the Jedi.

“A portion of the terrain surrounding the northern margin of the Caloris basin hosts an elevated block in the shape of a certain carbonite-encased smuggler who can make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs,” the scientists say.

The image was captured by the orbiting Messenger probe in July 2011, and released this week. The image is named “He will not be permanently damaged”, a quote from Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back.

The scientists admit that observing a resemblance to Han Solo is a form of “pareidolia” - the  habit of seeing human shapes in space, such as the man in the moon.

[NASA probe hears "shriek" in space]

“If there are two things you should remember, it's not to cross a Hutt, and that Mercury's surface can throw up all kinds of surprises. This block may be part of the original surface that pre-dates the formation of Caloris, which was shaped by material ejected during the basin-forming event,” the researchers say.

Data from the Messenger probe has caused scientists to rethink the history of Mercury, the innermost planet in the solar system - and could lead to a greater understanding of how terrestrial planets like Earth form.

The NASA Messenger probe  reached Mercury’s orbit in March 2011, and has collected millions of measurements using instruments designed to operate in hostile conditions near the sun.

“The Messenger spacecraft is the first ever to orbit the planet Mercury, and the spacecraft's seven instruments are unraveling the history and evolution of the Solar System's innermost planet,” the researchers say. “During the first two years of orbital operations, Messenger acquired over 150,000 images and extensive other data sets. It is capable of continuing orbital operations until early 2015.

It was the first probe to visit Mercury since Mariner in 1975.

It took Messenger - an acronym for Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging - six years to travel 60 million miles to the solar system's innermost planet.