NASA scientists have created the first topographic map of Mercury, and the verdict from the Internet is clear – it’s pretty.
Mercury is the solar system’s smallest, least explored planet. NASA scientists now have a map that can help them understand the geographic history of the tiny world, along with an animation showing it rotating (shown below). But the effort was not easy, according to the Christian Science Monitor.
The topographic map and animation required 100,000 images taken over the course of 4,104 orbits from the MESSENGER mission. The U.S. Geological Survey, NASA, Carnegie Institute of Washington, Arizona State University, and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory all participated in creating the map.
The MESSENGER mission itself has collected 10 terabytes of Mercury science data, including millions of spectra, numerous other map products and about 300,000 images.
Susan Ensor, manager of the MESSENGER Science Operations Center and software engineer, explained in a statement from NASA that the hard work is well worth it.
“The wealth of these data, greatly enhanced by the extension of MESSENGER’s primary one-year orbital mission to more than four years, has already enabled and will continue to enable exciting scientific discoveries about Mercury for decades to come.”
The calculations for the topographic map revealed a few interesting nuggets for potential Mercury travelers. It shows that the highest elevation is found just south of the equator and is about 4.48 kilometers above Mercury’s average elevation (Mount Everest is about 8.8 kilometers tall). Likewise, some of the lowest points are on the floor of Rachmaninoff basin about 5.38 kilometers below Mercury’s average.
The map also shows Mercury’s northern volcanic plains, which are just south of the north pole, in enhanced color. The area consists largely of molten rock, and the lava is as much as a mile deep in some places.
According to Nancy Chabot, the Instrument Scientist for the Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS), “MESSENGER had previously discovered that past volcanic activity buried this portion of the planet beneath extensive lavas, more than a mile deep in some areas and covering a vast area equivalent to approximately 60% of the continental United States.”
[Related: Mercury is also in the process of transiting the sun right now, as previously reported by the Inquisitr.]
— NASA (@NASA) May 9, 2016
Mercury is a more complicated world than many people realize. The side that faces the sun is extremely hot (801 degrees F or 427 degrees C to be exact), but there’s also ice. The first photos of Mercury’s water ice also came from the MESSENGER mission in 2014 according to Space, but the first clues of ice on the tiny rocky planet came about 20 years before that.
The ice sits in the planet’s polar craters where it’s protected from the nearby sun. The most surprising part of the discovery for some researchers was that the water appeared to have come there recently, rather than billions of years ago like they initially thought.
The ice illustrates that Mercury is a place of extremes rather than just a very hot rock. The shaded side quickly drops below freezing as well. Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson said that if someone could perfectly straddle the hot and cold sections of the Mercury they could survive there, at least until they needed to breathe.
As for the new topographic map, the researchers explained that the techniques used to create it are an accomplishment just by themselves.
Kris Becker, USGS scientist, explained, “we are eager to apply what we learned from this mapping effort to small bodies such as asteroids and comets, as well as other planets and moons.”
The full-scale topographic map of Mercury is available here.
[Image via NASA/JHUAPL/Carnegie Institution of Washington]