Spiders on Mercury!

By Phil Plait | January 30, 2008 8:10 pm

OK, not really. But the folks from MESSENGER, the probe that passed Mercury recently, have released lots of images and made some scientific announcements, too. The image that really struck me was this one:

This is near the center of a vast region on Mercury called Caloris Basin. The radial cracks — called The Spider by the MESSENGER team — are very cool, and nothing like them has ever been seen before. Caloris Basin is an impact feature. Something very large hit Mercury a long time ago, carving out a major hole, which filled with molten rock (or whatever Mercury is made of). Over time, the floor of the basin cracked…

There are many cliffs on Mercury due to the shrinkage of the planet (the pool water was cold!). As the planet cooled and solidified, the crust settled, creating the network of scarps and cliffs. I wonder if the Spider is something along those lines. I’m sure Emily is feverishly writing even as I type this. (Update: Indeed she was!)

The impact crater in the middle of the lines is weird too. The odd shape must be due to the cracks themselves; clearly the crater formed after the cracks (it overlays them). The surface around there must be a total mess. I’ll be very curious to see the high-res images once MESSENGER settles into orbit in a few years. Many of the craters on the planet have odd shapes, and I just bet that’s due to the surface being cracked everywhere. That would play havoc with what would ordinarily be nice, round craters.

Besides that image there was lots of science released; they measured Mercury’s magnetic field, took ground altimetry data, and even observed a giant cloud of sodium blowing off the planet (it was known before from ground-based data, but this is much better resolution — there’s nothing like being there).

Once MESSENGER becomes a moon of Mercury, expect to see lots of very cool stuff from a very hot planet.

Comments (46)

  1. Michelle

    Oh that is SWEET. You know, I think that Mercury is some sort of underrated planet. It’s just so cool.

    But I wanna see more of ‘em in color!

  2. ABR

    Hey, a geoglyph ! (or Mercurian equivalent). Maybe the Nazca have already been to Mercury….

  3. SteveT

    Looks like the impact site from a Shadow spaceship (Babylon5)! I suggest we send a lander to the crater to check for fragments of the ship.

    Let’s just be very careful not to wake anyone up!

  4. D Mount

    That Ted Twietmeyer guy that was talking about the flagpole had another article sugesting that the oddly shaped craters on Canada might be alien cities or marks from hexagon-shaped laser death beams!

    No joke… heh

  5. Huron

    To me, it is a dandelion seed.

  6. OtherRob

    Guess it shows where my mind is, but it kinda looks like a giant sperm to me….

  7. Michael Lonergan

    Hexagon shaped craters on Canada – classic. To those that may not know the reference, someone hijacked Wiki, and replaced the word Mercury with Canada.

  8. I was reading something, somewhere, (can’t remember where) that there is this theory that Mercury may have actually “lost” its original surface due to the large number of impacts (?) or some such. Anyone else know anything about this idea? BA?

  9. We must attack Klendathu before they throw any more asteroids
    (2007 TU24) at us!

    J/P=?

  10. Hey, I just found your site after that whole tu24 bs. I find you because of someone at work talking about how one of their kids was all into this site that claims the world is going to end and it is all a cover up blah blah blah. I love your information on that and I love this. I am glad I found you!

    As for the this pic it is great. It makes me want to dig out my old “Lucky Starr” novels by Isaac Asimov and laugh and cry at how we thought the planets were once.

  11. Bill Nettles

    SteveT, I love the B-5 reference. That was the first thing I thought, too, when I saw the picture…call the Rangers!

    Somebody (BA) needs to remind NASA that the Spiders are from Mars, along with Ziggy S.

  12. madge

    I’ve been following (not literally!) this mission for some time. The data coming back is just awesome. Along with Cassini and of course Spirit and Opportunity (bless ‘em) my FAVOURITE missions. Sometimes we humans CAN do pretty cool stuff.

  13. Jess Tauber

    I’VE seen this before- on a human scale. Chonchoidal fracture of cryptocrystalline materials, as in knapping flint. You get both wave structures in rings and stress fractures radially from the point of impact. Having done this for many years I can attest that it happens.

    Makes me wonder whether Mercury would make a good source for knapping materials….

  14. sprocket

    It’s definitely tracks made by something nasty that lives in the crater, and goes out hunting every night. It’s VERY nasty; it reminds me of M.R.James’ story, Wailing Well.

    (http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/jamesX31.htm)

  15. Aurimas

    I can see Jesus face in there! Can’t you Phil?

  16. OK question time – why cant we see more colour pictures from our more recent probes and satellites? I read about the way that it makes sense if to make every pixel count when you are taking a picture.

    http://www.badastronomy.com/bablog/2008/01/23/emily-bigfoot-and-awesomeness/#comment-150190

    And that because of this you have a single greyscale camera and a series of filters. Ok – thats cool.

    So does this mean its better to have a single greyscale camera and filters vs say, a colour one with more photodetectors? I know space on these satellites is a premium, but is it really that bad? How big could it be to have a camera that does both? Or is there another limitation (cost?).

    Its not that I’m complaining – I love the big black and white shots of Mercury. It blows my mind to think something we made is currently flying past at great speed taking photos like a paparazzi speed freak in a Bugatti Veron.

    Cheers in advance.

  17. Chip

    In the picture, the cracks appear to be generally radiating away from the larger darker area rather than the big crater, which is within the darker area. That’s weird – and wild. Mercury, though cratered, is not like the moon. This is exciting stuff.

  18. OtherRob: If that’s a sperm, I’d hate to see the egg.

    Chip makes a good point; the cracks do seem to radiate out from the darker spot. There’s also one that appears to abruptly veer away from the crater itself.

  19. anon

    the light coming from the bottom up makes it look weird, flip the picture 180*, much better!

  20. Tulle

    Spankermatic, a colour CCD with the same number of photodetectors as a greyscale one will have one third the resoution of the greyscale one, and in space exploration, resolution is king.

  21. DennyMo

    It’s a marking left there by the Ramans, to remind us they’ll be coming back.

  22. Scrolli

    Hey!, what do you suppose it would look like on Mercury if it gets a direct hit from a solar flare?

  23. Spider? I’m seeing an xkcd stick man (from here for example). ;-)

  24. Donnie B.

    Hey, if I were stuck that close to the Sun, I’d have a pretty serious pucker going too.

  25. Blinky
  26. StevoR

    Thanks. Brilliant news & images – I gather there’s volcanism and planetary shrinkage and all sorts going on there & look forward to hearing more ..

    There’s a Steve T now? Watch out mate, you don’t want to get confused with me* – you may end up lynched! ;-)

    * I’ve posted the odd ..ah ..controversial .. comment here on occassion ..

    ——————————————-

    5 years ago today (1st Feb, already here in Adelaide) teh space shuttel Columbia broke up on re-entry.

    Vale ‘Columbia’ & its crew of Commander Rick Husband, Pilot William McCool, David Brown, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Ilan Ramon & Kalpana Chawla : Gone but not forgotten.

    Per aspera ad astra – ‘Through difficulties to the stars.’
    – Latin proverb. (Quoted by Isaac Asimov in ‘Trends’ in “The Early Asimov vol. 1?, Granada, 1972.)

  27. Cool, yes I think it will be more interesting when we may be able to check out the topograhic and tomographic views of these scapes ?

  28. StevoR

    Today Feb. 1st (in Adelaide now anyway) marks the 5th anniversary of the loss of the space shuttle Columbia on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere :

    Vale ‘Columbia’ & its crew of Commander Rick Husband, Pilot William McCool, David Brown, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Ilan Ramon & Kalpana Chawla : Gone but not forgotten.

    Per aspera ad astra – ‘Through difficulties to the stars.’
    – Latin proverb. (Quoted by Isaac Asimov in ‘Trends’ in “The Early Asimov vol. 1?, Granada, 1972.)

  29. StevoR

    Thanks. Brilliant images & great news. Gather there’s volcanism and shrinkage of the planet and all sorts going on there & I’m looking forward to hearing more.

    There’s a Steve T there now? Watch out mate, you don’t want to get confused with me – I’ve said the odd .. er ..controversial … thing here before & probably will again ..

    —————————————
    Today Feb. 1st (in Adelaide now anyway) marks the 5th anniversary of the loss of the space shuttle Columbia on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere :

    Vale ‘Columbia’ & its crew of Commander Rick Husband, Pilot William McCool, David Brown, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Ilan Ramon & Kalpana Chawla : Gone but not forgotten.

    Per aspera ad astra – ‘Through difficulties to the stars.’
    – Latin proverb. (Quoted by Isaac Asimov in ‘Trends’ in “The Early Asimov vol. 1?, Granada, 1972.)

  30. StevoR

    Thanks. Brilliant images & great news. Gather there’s volcanism and shrinkage of the planet and all sorts going on there & I’m looking forward to hearing more.

    There’s a Steve T there now? Watch out mate, you don’t want to get confused with me – I’ve said the odd .. er ..controversial … thing here before & probably will again …

  31. StevoR

    ;-)

    Do’h forget that emoticon Iemant toadd totheabove post!

    Plus had trouble posting … & as always where’s the editing capacity when you need it! ;-)

    ***

    Today Feb. 1st (date in Adelaide now anyway) marks the 5th anniversary of the loss of the space shuttle Columbia on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere :

    Vale ‘Columbia’ & its crew of Commander Rick Husband, Pilot William McCool, David Brown, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Ilan Ramon & Kalpana Chawla : Gone but not forgotten.

  32. StevoR

    Ooops.

    Sorry folks – the messages hadn’t come through – I got some computer gibberish .. & now I find they’ve all come through at once. :-(

    My apologies.

  33. alfaniner

    It’s that skinny stick-like alien from the finale of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. His arms are spread wide like in the movie and he is looking up and to the right.

  34. Why is anyone surprised about those cracks and wrinkles? Mercury is old and has never used sunscreen.

  35. flynjack

    Looks volcanic to me. I would love to see it in 3D. Kind of a mini Olympus Mons overlaid with impact craters.

  36. themadlolscientist

    @alfaniner – I thought it looked like a stick figure alien too. Those Nazcans sure get around!

  37. Eddie

    RCH is currently foaming at the mouth. Literally.

  38. Gary Ansorge

    With all(nearly) of the light gasses blown off by the intense solar radiation, Mercury must be mostly heavy metals. I’ll bet there is a great concentration of radioactive metals in the core and maybe even in the crust. Perhaps one day we’ll have mining consortiums on Mercury extracting them for use throughout the solar system.
    An active “hot” core would explain the magnetic field. Even though it has nearly no rotation to churn the core, there must be convection currents of liquid iron and that would generate a weak magnetic field.

    GAry 7

  39. Thanks Tulle. Much appreciated. 13rd eh? Thats a bit of a drop in resolution.

  40. alfaniner

    Did a little playing around in Paint. Invert the colors, flip it vertically, and it looks like the Death Star exploding!

  41. Majy

    Phil,

    Is there any reason that when I look at pictures like this that the craters and cracks look like bumps to me? They don’t look indented; they look like bumps and hills. I even tried turning the picture 180 deg. Still looks like bumps. This happens all the time to me when I look at pics of craters… weird. Some kind of optical illusion?

    Majy

  42. Gary Ansorge

    Majy:
    I’ve seen some pics that were designed to provoke that very same illusion. Stare at what appears to be an indented hole surrounded by rills and after a while it inverts and appears to be a mountain peak surrounded by circular valleys.

    GAry 7

  43. Astro

    Why are they pulling mesenger away from mercury already?
    it just got there and on the planetary.org blog it has shots of it pulling away already.

    where it is it heading next ?

  44. Astro writes:

    [[Why are they pulling mesenger away from mercury already?
    it just got there and on the planetary.org blog it has shots of it pulling away already.
    ]]

    It’s not orbiting Mercury yet, it’s on a fly-by as it continues around the sun. It will take another couple of solar orbits before it’s going slowly enough to enter Mercury orbit (in 2009, I think).

  45. A bit late to the party, but it’s almost certainly chance superposition. I tracked the lines of many of the troughs: They do not centre on the crater. See for yourself:
    http://upload.hattix.co.uk/files/caloris_messenger.png

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