The colors of Mercury

By Phil Plait | October 29, 2008 11:35 am

Data from the second MESSENGER flyby of Mercury is coming in; NASA held a telephone press conference today to release some new, interesting stuff. Although scientifically it’s just a tease, my favorite is this picture:

Mercury in color, by MESSENGER
MESSENGER’s colorized Mercury

By eye, Mercury is a relatively uniform grey with splotches of variation in brightness. But MESSENGER’s sensitive cameras have filters on them which isolate different colors, and when put together and enhanced they show subtle color changes on the planet’s face. These colors are almost certainly due to changes in the composition of the rocks on the surface… in other words, MESSENGER can do mineralogical studies from space!

MESSENGER color shot of Mercury, zoomed

In this closeup view, younger terrain on the left is yellower, while older features appear blue. We know the area on the left is young because it’s smooth; it hasn’t been around long enough to get bombarded from space by comet and asteroid impacts. On the right, the material that appears blue may have been ejected by the impact that formed the crater on the right.

Remember, these colors are not nearly this striking to the eye! It’s only because we can enhance MESSENGER’s color information that these color features are visible.

Sadly, the flyby was so fast that scientists can’t really interpret these colors and tag them to different kinds of minerals. But MESSENGER is going to settle into orbit around Mercury in 2011, and once it does, these cameras will map the surface to their hearts’ (well, CPUs’) content, providing us with incredible details of the content of this dinky, battered, roasted planet.

Image credit: NASA.


Comments (27)

  1. Gnat

    Anybody know if there is a downloadable version of that? I’m trying to make it my background, but it’s not working, and I can’t find it on the NASA site.


  2. This was not a telecon but a real press conference (“space science update”, with the speakers sitting around a table) shown live on NASA TV – where they said it’ll be re-run several times later today. I “tweeted” it live, sans the visuals, of course.

  3. Charles

    ‘Artificially enhanced’ or not, it certainly is beautiful.

    Like Gnat, I would like to have a hi-res copy.

  4. The highest resolution images released so far (including today) from the 2nd flyby can be found here: click on the images, then again – that’s how large as they get.

  5. OT,

    Just finished your book. EXCELLENT. My review is here. (There’s a small typo on p.138)

  6. The images I linked are the highest-res ones released. I’m hoping they’ll have better ones soon. Check Emily’s blog too, since she generally gets really good images.

  7. Chip

    Very nice images. I’m reminded that Mercury is not the moon. Lunar-like, yes; grey to the eye and heavily cratered, but really a very different world. On the surface, up close its likely even more unusual.
    Some day, if humans or robots actually land on the surface, I think they’d find many unusual local features.

  8. Way to be a tease MESSENGER! 😉 Is it early 2011 or late 2011 when she goes into orbit?

  9. WJM

    Can we get one of them there Chandrayaans in orbit around Mercury, too?

  10. Steve A

    The schedule is insertion in Mach 2011. But, we fortunately have another flyby next September to tide us over. I can’t wait. If the past two flybys are any indication, there is going to be some great science once it actually is taking measurements for long periods of time.

  11. Ivan V.

    I understand that this image is a composition from multi-spectral images? Do you know if the raw data for those images is going to be available to general public? In my research group we have been working with hyper-spectral images for quite a while and I would LOVE to work with those images. 😀

  12. Gavin Flower

    “Mach 2011” wow that’s fast!!!

    Oh, do you mean “March”, not “Mach” as in the speed of sound???

  13. Gavin Flower

    My last post omitted a smiley…

  14. Tom Marking

    Impactors on Mercury must be travelling between 4.2 and 115.6 kilometers per second. That compares to a range of 11.2 to 71.9 kilometers per second for the earth. Thus, the minimum impact velocity on Mercury is 38 percent of what it is for the earth and the maximum impact velocity on Mercury is 161 percent of what it is for the earth. Thus, the same mass impactor can smack Mercury with 2.6 times the maximum kinetic energy as it can hit the earth with. That means Mercury can get clobbered really bad.

    See that crater with the bright rays in the middle of the picture? That’s Kuiper crater and it has a diameter of 60 kilometers. It would have taken a 3.1 kilometer wide rocky asteroid travelling at 30 km/sec to create that guy. The details are as follows:

    Target planet or moon = Mercury
    Diameter of the impactor = 3.1 kilometers
    Density of the impactor = 2.50 gm/cm^3
    Initial velocity of the impactor = 30.00 km/sec
    Initial elevation angle of the impactor above horizon = 45.0 degrees
    Density of the target surface = 2.50 gm/cm^3
    Land strike
    Distance of observer from surface impact point = 1000.0 km

    Gravitational acceleration at surface of planet = 3.68 m/s^2
    Minimum velocity of an impactor = 4.2 km/sec
    Maximum velocity of an impactor = 115.6 km/sec
    Atmospheric pressure at surface = 0.000E0 pascals
    Atmospheric density at surface = 0.000E0 gm/cm^3
    Surface temperature = 67.0 deg C
    Initial kinetic energy of impactor in outer space = 1.75E22 joules
    = 4.19E6 Megatons TNT

    An impact of this size occurs once every 4.20E7 years

    Atmospheric entry:
    Velocity of the impactor at the surface = 30.00 km/sec
    Elevation angle of the impactor at the surface = 45.0 degrees
    Amount of energy dissipated in the atmosphere = 0.00%
    Kinetic energy of impactor at the surface = 1.75E22 joules
    = 4.19E6 Megatons TNT
    = 8.96 Richter scale

    Cratering effects:
    Width of transient crater at the surface = 3.83E1 km
    Depth of transient crater at the surface = 1.35E1 km
    Volume of transient crater at the surface = 7.81E3 km^3
    Width of final crater at the surface = 6.02E1 km
    Depth of final crater at the surface = 1.59E0 km
    Volume of final crater at the surface = 2.26E3 km^3

  15. Mena

    According to the main Yahoo page news section, “NASA probe shows Mercury spewed ‘dark blue material'”. At least the linked to article explains reality. They just labeled it with “NASA probe shows Mercury more dynamic than thought” and explained that it wasn’t really blue.

  16. Steve A

    “Oh, do you mean “March”, not “Mach” as in the speed of sound???”

    Yup, March. I’ll blame the keyboard. :)

  17. For another more challenging view of Mercury and the key problems it poses for the standard “scientific” model – click on my name above. If it works ..

  18. Gary Ansorge

    I wonder how much dust litters the surface of Mercury? Could it all have melted into larger chunks?

    Meteoric dust is one of the primary inhibiters to Lunar construction. It gets into everything and degrades moving components. Not particularly good for human lungs, either. HAving said that, I can think of a half dozen ways to protect both,,,

    One SciFi story I read years ago, proposed using AI ‘bots to build power generating stations on the light side of Mercury and a large particle accelerator on the dark side, to generate and store anti matter, the ultimate fuel for reaction drives. I wonder if EXXON will ever get into such energy sources.?(,,,mumbles abstractedly, while checking investment portfolio,,,)

    ,,,of course, there’s probably lots of Helium 3 to mine, as well,,,(Says the Polywell reactor fan,,,)

    Gary 7

  19. Yes, the links working! Praise the Lord!

    I hope all those proud scientists here have the intelligence to visit this site and really, really *think* about the challenges Mercury poses us mortal men and women with our guesswork theories versus the Eternal Word.

    Go on evolutionists read it & really think!

    And when you’re done thinking search your heart for what’s really true.

  20. Thank you Fidelus, my eyes have seen the glory and I am going to repent of the evils of evolution and sinful astronomy. If I was American I would be lining up now to vote for McCain/Palin – blessed be their names….
    Nah, not really.

    Obviously that webpage was written by a biologist because they keep referring to evolutionists saying this and that about planetary formation. I think the word they’re looking for is astronomer or astrophysicist. There is so much wrong with that article I don’t know where to begin. The most obvious error? Pluto is a planet? Puhleeese.

  21. Joker

    Well Fidel (BTW. I’m guessing the ‘Fidel’ in your moniker here is from Fidel Castro, y’know that Cuban guy? Yeah? )

    I saw that link – and yes It made go “oh Jeez-Zus!” alright.

    … But probably NOt inthe way youwere hoping for.

    If anyone wants to avoid wasting their time, Fidel’s little linky is to a Creationist website – the one that used to be the long-since discredited Answ-errs-In-Genes-sis. (Or something like that! 😉 )

    Basically it says – there are some unknown mysteries with Mercury -therefore … GODDIDIT! Its rubbish.

    @ Shane – Nah, Pluto not being a planet isn’t the worst error there by a long margin. In fact, the whole article is one long error – and besides, Pluto is too a planet – coz K9 from Dr Who said so! 😉

    .. & I’ve wasted more’n’enough time on this nonsense already. :-(

  22. IVAN3MAN

    Fidelus Astronautica: “Yes, the links working! Praise the Lord!”

    Praise the Lord, my hairy ass! You should really praise the web-master of this site for permitting the link to your crappy creationist propaganda web-site. :roll:

  23. John Lerch

    Are the great circle arcs, lines of ejecta or are they artifacts of the data storage?
    I presume they’re not meridians drawn (by NASA) from the mercury pole; so how are the poles for habitation–are there craters at the poles deep enough to be comfortable (sun never rises)? One would need a heat absorber/radiator to get rid of the last of the heat from the day and transport heat up for the worst of the nights.

  24. Tom Marking

    @John Lerch “Are the great circle arcs, lines of ejecta or are they artifacts of the data storage? I presume they’re not meridians drawn (by NASA) from the mercury pole; so how are the poles for habitation–are there craters at the poles deep enough to be comfortable (sun never rises)?”

    The rays are real. They appear to be coming from the crater at the top of the image. It must be one of the more recent craters to form. The axial tilt of Mercury is the smallest of any planet in the solar system. It is only 0.035 degrees. This means that there should be a rather large area at the poles in which the crater bottoms are always in shadow and the crater rims are always in sunshine.

  25. Tom Marking

    “This means that there should be a rather large area at the poles in which the crater bottoms are always in shadow and the crater rims are always in sunshine.”

    More specifically, a 1-kilometer wide rocky asteroid impacting at 30 km/sec at an angle of 45 degrees leaves an impact crater on Mercury that is 22.2 km wide and 1.18 km deep. If such an impact crater were to occur within 6 degrees of latitude of either the Mercurian north pole or south pole (i.e., Mercurian latitude is greater than 84 degrees North or less than 84 degrees South) then the bottom of such a crater will be in perpetual darkness. This area where the crater can be and be dark at the bottom represents 0.5 percent of the total surface area of Mercury.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar