Jaw-dropping mosaic of Mercury's battered, beautiful face

By Phil Plait | May 13, 2011 7:00 am

We live in an era of wonder, where people send robots to other worlds and view them close up. These machines get bathed in radiation, searing heat, bitter cold, suffocating vacuum, and they keep running. Moreover, they send their data back digitally, which can then be stored in a database and, if permissions are given, accessed by the public. And a subset of that public is educated in the ways of digital media, able to stitch together pictures, carefully aligning them, balancing them, coordinating borders and overlap regions.

The result? This:

Yegads. That is Mercury as seen by the MESSENGER spacecraft in 2008, as it flew by the planet for the first time. It would do so again before finally entering orbit in March 2011. But as it left the smallest planet, it snapped a series of wide angle and high-resolution images.

Gordon Ugarkovic is a Croatian software developer. He’s also an amateur image processor… for a sufficiently wide definition of "amateur". He takes space images and works his prowess on them, creating dramatic and beautiful images like this one of Mercury.

Click the picture to embiggen it, or you can also download a vast 5000 x 5000 pixel version that is, frankly, spectacular. Gordon used over 30 of the high-res frames from MESSENGER’s Narrow Angle Camera to make this mosaic, and then used images from the Wide Angle Camera to balance the color.

The 25 megapixel image is nothing short of amazing. Scrolling across it is like flying across the planet. I see features there I hadn’t noticed before, like a pale dark streak just south of Mercury’s equator, sharp cliffs called scarps that litter the surface, craters with bright rays of ejected material streaming out of them. It’s breathtaking.

Gordon has also done images of Saturn, Jupiter, and moons galore. You can follow his work at the Unmanned Spaceflight forum, or peruse his Flickr stream. But be warned: better have a lot of time handy. You’ll be spending it there.

Image used with permission. Tip o’ the heat shield to Dan Durda for tipping me off to the picture.

Related posts:

MESSENGER’s family portrait
More Mercury!
Mercury hides a monster impact
Watermelon planet (a personal favorite of mine)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (27)

  1. Matija

    Great picture! One correction: his first name is Gordan, not Gordon.

  2. Thomas Siefert

    Where’s the moustache…?
    Ah I see… You are talking about the Lesser Mercury…

  3. kevbo

    “pale dark strip”?

  4. Done some stitching of photos into a panorama myself, but this is awesome!

  5. Kyle

    All I can say is wow, if that’s what an “amateur” can do what can the “professional” do? Well done Mr. Gordan well done indeed sir!

  6. PG

    Absolutely… just, wow. Bravo Mr. Gordan!

  7. Elmar_M

    It is interesting how much less battered Mercury looks compared to our moon.
    I mean, yes there are tons of craters on them, but they appear smaller and the surface appears less “shattered” than the moons. Not sure, maybe it is just an deceiving impressuion. It could just be because Mercury is (slightly) bigger than the moon and so the craters look smaller. It might also be because Mercury is denser?
    Or maybe its location that close to the sun means it is more protected?

  8. saphroneth

    What I found interesting is that the stitch job isn’t quite perfect. If you run an Edge Detection algorithm on the picture, it actually reveals the different panes (as they were taken in different light conditions and adjusted to match, presumably). It also shows up the dark side more.

  9. Chris A.

    I’m still trying to parse “pale, dark streak.” If it’s pale, how can it be dark? “Faint, dark streak” perhaps?

  10. Alph

    Nice picture. It would be interesting to know how bright it would be if I was standing on the surface with the Sun overhead. Would it be twice as bright as on Earth? Projector-in-your-eyes bright?

  11. Matt B.

    Forget the “pale” dark streak, there’s a good-size dark circle near the right edge, a small crater filled with white material near the top (between two other craters, near the top of the large actually pale area), and a tectonic-looking scarp near the middle of the terminator. The area in the upper left with pale streaks extending form it has a very young crater at its center. Ooh, piece of candy. Ooh, piece of candy. Ooh, piece of candy.

  12. Another amazing image by a very talented photo editor! Thanks for bringing it to our attention, and of course thanks to Mr. Ugarkovic for all his hard work!

  13. chad

    awesome! but why is it left to an “amateur” to do this… nasa should be commissioning images like these all the time!

  14. Ben

    Wow, the closer you look the more impressive it is. Was there ever water on Mercury? I think not but looking in the top right (just above the huge dark carter) it almost looks like dried river beds flowing downhill. Probably just boulders but damn, I’ve been staring for 15 minutes now.

  15. Phil (et al), I thought you’d like this Clarke quote (especially in light of a post like this):

    “I sometimes think that the universe is a machine designed for the perpetual astonishment of astronomers.” — Sir Arthur C. Clarke, (b. 1917-12-16, d. 2008-03-19)


  16. sylph

    Thank You! It is greatly appreciated that there are amateurs who have the desire to spend their time creating images like this and sharing them with the world! Thank you again :)

  17. Crudely Wrott

    Wow. Look at all the places!

    Looking at the 25MegaPixel image I went back in time to some old Asimov stories that featured Mercury as a setting.

    Lucky Starr was there and so, if memory serves, were a couple of robot stories. Little Lost Robot?

    I read them nearly fifty years ago and in my mind I created my own model of Mercury, sizzling on one side and frigid on the other with a curious temperate zone that fluctuated along the limb. Lots of craters, of course. Now this image. I recognize it and in fact if I were to be shown it without caption I would immediately guess Mercury.

    To see the actual place, where before only imagination could find a point of view, and to see it familiar, recognizable, is kind of an epiphany. I find it quite uplifting as well as highly entertaining that the model I formed in my brain, largely informed by science fiction, is congruent with the actual thing. We do indeed live in an age of wonder.

    Chances are we will keep wondering and thereby discover and create new wonders. Not only is this a wonder in itself but it is, at least for me, a confirmation, a vindication, for the idea that our minds display the potential to contain ever more accurate and complete models of the universe.

    Perhaps, when the universe ceases to have any locality, there will be a model elsewhere that continues. Just imagine being one of those brains!

    In the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t anticipate the white rays of ejecta from a small subset of craters. There also seems to be a lot of small craters concentrated in the low latitudes. Didn’t think of that either.

    Issac would have so loved this picture. Thanks again, Phil.

  18. Sam H

    By any chance, is this a true-colour picture? It certainly looks that way. But VERY beautiful and so utterly detailed – even if it isn’t a 3D version (which they should DEFINITELY make :)), it really feels like one is floating thousands of kilometres away in space, feeling the SIZE and majesty of the pockmarked spheroid looming before them.

    I found something: near the terminator just north of the central horizontal axis (which may be the equator, but I can’t be sure) is a crater with a group of central mountains that look, to me, suspiciously like an anus. Kuhnigget: If the IAU hasn’t layed down a claim yet (which I don’t think they have), maybe we should name this one “Ju Hua”, no? ūüėČ

  19. Jamey

    It looks like a lot more of the craters have central peaks than I’m used to – perhaps this is because the temperature of the rocks makes them more plastic, allowing them to form the splash peak? And there’s one nice crater (near the I presume relatively fresh crater with the extensive ray formation that looks almost like the rays were blown around by the wind before they settled?) with three ejecta chains that look like they got blown around by the wind a bit, as well. This is a *SERIOUSLY* awesome picture!

  20. Troy

    I notice in the few times I’ve seen Mercury through the telescope it appears more pinkish. I wonder if that is just an atmospheric effect as this image has more of a grayish hue.

  21. Magnificent Mercurian (i)mages batman! ūüėČ 8)

    More Mercurian news – click on my name for source – apparently the natural feature made by crossing crater chains on Mercury (an ineffective “no-cratering” sign?) that the BA wrote about the other day (see ‘X-crater first class’ posted on 9th May 2011 at 6.59 a.m.) has started the Hoaxland types going wild. :-(

    Just as #8. buffalodavid & # 11. Evolving Squid predicted in the comments there.


    PS. There’s now 2 days, 7 hours, 17 minutes and 55 seconds on the countdown clock for the final launch of Endeavour orbiter and the penultimate Space Shuttle launch ever.

  22. Anchor

    This is by far superior to mosaics typically issued by NASA or JPL. It makes me wonder how much image data of so many planets and moons has been denied this sort of exceptional treatment. It takes true dedication and an exceedingly sharp (yes, artistic!!!) eye to acheive a result like this.

    THANK YOU Gordon Ugarkovic for showing everyone how it is properly done!!!

    Absolutely magnificent.

  23. Kiku

    Absolutely amazing! Congratulations Gordan and thanks Phil for bring us this!

  24. Sean McCorkle

    Following up on Jamey’s comment 15:

    Perusing the large image, I just now noticed a number of craters to the right of the terminator with central “peaks” which appear to be rings! And there’s at least two other examples of craters with concentric rings. Large impacts sites (Caloris on Mercury, Valhalla on Callisto) show concentric structures, but these are relatively small craters! I don’t recall ever seeing examples like this on the Moon—is there something about Mercury that changes impact dynamics? Maybe the melted rock stays in a liquid state longer and more “ripples” get frozen in, or something?

    Exquisite image! Thank you for posting it!

  25. Brittany

    Thank you for posting the link to Gordon Ugarkovic’s flickr stream! I am in awe, especially of the mosaics of all the photos from Cassini. Can I die and have my soul implanted into the Cassini probe? I would be happy.

  26. edgar

    awesome! but why is it left to an ‚Äúamateur‚ÄĚ to do this‚Ķ nasa should be commissioning images like these all the time!

  27. how much less battered Mercury is compared to our moon.
    I mean, yes there are tons of craters in them, but they seem smaller and the surface seems less “broken” of the moons. Not sure, maybe it’s just an impression of cheating. Can only be because the mercury is slightly larger than the moon and so do the smaller craters. It could also be that mercury is more dense?


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