NASA's Messenger space probe has returned some captivating images of the nearest planet to the sun during its historic 11-year mission, and now that data has been compiled into a mesmerizing new topographic map of Mercury. This is the most detailed mapping of the planet ever created and gives us a full-featured view of its craters, volcanoes, and tectonic highlights. Messenger's array of cameras and sophisticated instruments collected an unimaginable wealth of images during its ambitious 5-billion-mile mission, which began in 2011 when it entered orbital insertion and included 4,104 orbits around Mercury. More than 100,000 separate images were inspected and matched to create this astonishing digital map.
“The creation of this map is a prime example of the utility and beauty that can come out of overcoming complex cartographic problems,” said Lazlo Kestay, USGS Astrogeology Science Center Director. “This highly aesthetic product literally provides a whole new dimension to the study of Mercury images, opening many new paths to understanding the surface, interior, and past of the closest planet to the sun."
In this vivid new digital tool, Mercury’s surface is color-coded according to the topography of the surface, with regions of higher elevations shaded brown, yellow, and red and regions with lower elevations appearing blue, violet, and purple. First launched in August of 2004, Messenger's successful voyage to Mercury far surpassed expectations and finally ended with its sad descent and impact onto the surface on April 30, 2015.
“Production of the digital elevation model of Mercury is the capstone of a significant scientific achievement of the Messenger mission,” said Ralph McNutt, Messenger team member and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory scientist. “This product reveals the entirety of the innermost planet of the solar system, less than half glimpsed during the three flybys of Mercury carried out by the Mariner 10 spacecraft over 40 years ago. As such, it is yet another indicator of the turning point from reconnaissance through exploration of Mercury by Messenger to an era of intensive study of Mercury in years to come.”