MESSENGER’s Final Word on Mercury

By Carl Engelking | May 6, 2016 1:43 pm
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The full topographic map of Mercury with labeled features. (Credit:USGS)

When Mercury glides across the face of the sun Monday, you’re not going to see much more than a speck — if you have the right equipment.

But thanks to NASA’s MESSENGER, we can see the planet’s peaks, valleys and pockmarks in unprecedented detail. On Friday, the Planetary Data System released the first global elevation model of Mercury’s surface, giving scientists an opportunity dive deeper into the planet’s geologic history.


Gone But Never Forgotten

MESSENGER’s operations ended just over a year ago when the spacecraft smashed into Mercury’s surface at a blazing speed of 8,750 mph, bringing the 4-year mission to a smoldering end. MESSENGER collected terabytes of data that scientists have been parsing since the craft met its end, and Friday’s release is the 15th and final major data dump from that mission.


Mercury’s northern volcanic plains shown colorized to emphasize different types of rocks on Mercury’s surface. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

The new model reveals the highest and lowest points on the planet, and fills in the last missing pieces of Mercury’s topography. In addition to the global model, scientists also have a crisp new view of Mercury’s volcanic north pole. This colorful map, enhanced to emphasize different types of rocks, will help scientists understand the volcanic activity that shaped Mercury’s surface.

MESSENGER was the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury, and logged two flybys of Venus on its way to the solar system’s innermost planet. It was launched in 2004, and arrived at Mercury in 2011.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: solar system
  • OWilson

    Incredible images.

    And another part of our Goldilocks existence is revealed. We are living in a lull period of asteroid impact activity, until the Sun’s next encounter with some extra solar object, that could nudge the entire contents of the Oort Cloud crashing into the inner planets again :)

    Get a load of the size of some of those impact craters!

  • John C


  • Mike Richardson

    Messenger has certainly changed the idea that Mercury is essentially a clone of the moon. Some features, like the Caloris impact basin, were known from the previous Mariner flyby, but entire portions of the globe were blank spaces until we orbited Mercury. Evidence of a longer than expected period of volcanism, extensive faulting and deformation from internal shrinking, and even permanently shadowed craters at the poles where ice deposits are suspected are some of the discoveries Messenger has helped make. And of course, some amazing images from the planet closest to the sun.



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