Mercury MESSENGER mission scores 100%

Global maps of Mercury. Half the globe is shown in black & white, the other in color. Each map is composed of thousands of images. Click this and any of the other photos for hi-res versions. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Nice job MESSENGER! After two years in orbit, the entire planet of Mercury has been mapped. Can a cellphone map app be far behind? Prior to MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging), human eyes had seen less than half of the planet up close. No spacecraft had dropped by the solar system’s innermost planet since Mariner 10 sent us the first detailed images of Mercury during three brief flyby loops executed in 1974-75.

Craters (from left) Tolkien, Tryggvadottir and Chesterton are located close to the planet’s north pole and have permanently shadowed floors. MESSENGER found evidence for ice in all three. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Over the past two years the probe has taken more than 168,000 pictures of Mercury’s numerous craters, ridges and enigmatic “hollows”, mapped its topography and determined the makeup of minerals on its surface through examination of the light they reflect from the sun.The probe also revealed water ice coated with organic materials within permanently shadowed craters at the planet’s north pole.

The 20.5-mile-diameter crater Kertesz, named for photographer Andre Kertesz. Mercury craters are named for artists. Kertesz’s floor is pocked by enigmatic “hollows” which could be material boiled off by the sun’s heat and radiation. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

With the probe’s original mission extended from one to two years, it’s now coming to an end. Unless a further extension is approval, March 17 would be the last for data gathering. Principal investigator, Sean Solomon of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, has submitted a proposal that would keep MESSENGER and mission control in business for another two years, about the time it runs out of fuel and crash lands on Mercury.

Waters crater was recently named in honor of blues legend “Muddy Waters” (a.k.a. McKinley Morganfield). The “mud” pouring out below it is melted rock from the impact. A color image at upper right shows it’s appropriately blue-toned. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Keeping the mission running would let scientists continue targeted studies of various features and shoot photos at incredibly high resolution as MESSENGER’s decaying orbit carries it closer and closer to the surface. Not only that, but the spacecraft is ideally placed to study and photograph Comet ISON when it makes it grazes the sun later this fall.

An oblique view of a 174-mile-long escarpment cutting through a crater. The slope is a geologic fault resembling an “overbite” that formed when the planet shrunk due to cooling of its interior. The left side is 1.2 miles higher than the right. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

To celebrate MESSENGER’s milestone, I thought you’d enjoy a selection of images from recent photo shoots.We’ll know in April whether the mission will continue once a science commission makes its decision. Click HERE to browse more photos in the archive.

A closeup view of hollows in an unnamed crater. The pits almost always occur within or surrounding impact features. They’re about 100 feet to a couple miles wide and lack rims. Hollows might be volcanic vents or created when sulfur and other volatile materials escape from the surface during solar wind bombardment. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

4 thoughts on “Mercury MESSENGER mission scores 100%

  1. Thanks Bob :) I recently read the book ‘Rare Earth’ (Ward/Brownlee). The subtitle is ‘Why complex life is uncommon in the Universe’. It’s in part about which factors make the Earth so different from other planets around us. So habitable. Things like plate tectonics, water (of course), habitable zone around the sun, magnetic field, mass etc. But despite those factors, when I see these images of Mercury, I’m still amazed at how enormously different the Earth is from this grey, rather depressing looking dead planet Mercury. Totally in favor of research like Messenger does by the way, but the dissimilarity with Earth is staggering.

    • Steven,
      We appreciate your thoughts on Mercury vs. Earth. It’s interesting that even on gray, dead Mercury MESSENGER has found ice and organic compounds. Not enough to kindle the fire of life, but it tells us how ubiquitous these things are. When they end up in the right place – ie, Earth – wonderful things can happen.

  2. Mercury was clearly in view in February some evenings. I look forward to seeing it again in May over a longer time period. As far as Panstaars, it would be a shame if I missed a second magnitude comet but the 10 day forecast calls for clouds through almost the whole time period.

    • I’m with you Edward. It looks grim for Duluth as well. I’ve got a friend I’ll be traveling with tonight if clear skies are within about 3 hours of town.

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