NASA's MESSENGER Captures Most Detailed Images Ever Taken of Mercury's Scorched Surface

Tuesday, 17 March 2015 - 4:46PM
NASA
Astronomy
Space Imagery
Tuesday, 17 March 2015 - 4:46PM
NASA's MESSENGER Captures Most Detailed Images Ever Taken of Mercury's Scorched Surface
NASA's MESSENGER is set to end its four-year mission by taking a kamikaze dive into Mercury's surface on April 30, but until then, it's sending incredibly detailed pictures of the scorched planet back to Earth. 

"We're able to see at close range portions of the planet we haven't seen in such detail before," principal investigator Sean Solomon told Nature.

The above picture not only shows us the surface, but reveals a phenomenon first discovered in 2012, the most significant discovery made by MESSENGER on its groundbreaking mission. Although Mercury is an extremely hot planet, the bottoms of its craters are covered in ice that materializes in swirls and pits. By all accounts, any ice on Mercury should melt, but some is still frozen because it lies in the perpetual shadows of the sides of the craters.

"The ice remains frozen on sun-baked Mercury because it is never in direct sunlight," said Nancy Chabot, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

Fuller Crater


[Credit: NASA]



MESSENGER has also had the opportunity to peer closely into the bottoms of these craters in the latest low-altitude images. The above picture, for example, details a crater called Fuller, which may contain ice that was the result of a water deposit from a collision with a space rock. 

"We're seeing into these regions where the sun never shines on Mercury," said Chabot.

Fuller has distinctive pattern of light and dark that suggests a carbon-rich material lies atop a layer of ice. The prevailing theory is that the aforementioned collision deposited water, and then the dark, carbon-rich material on top of it. 

Scarps


[Credit: NASA]



MESSENGER also caught a glimpse of miniature versions of Mercury's scarps, long staircase-like ridges which probably formed during the planet's birth. Scientists theorize that during the planet's formation, Mercury was first extremely hot, and then cooled down, and may have cracked during the cooling process. The miniature versions are especially telling, according to Thomas Watters, a planetary scientist at the National Air and Space Museum, because they resemble fault lines that occur on Earth's crust.

"These scarps are exciting," said Watters. "These faults are so young that they are probably forming today."

Hollows


[Credit: NASA]



MESSENGER also captured images of Mercury's "hollows," or the small bright spots in craters, many of which have turned out to be irregularly shaped depressions. Like the miniature scarps, the hollows are relatively young, and are possibly the youngest feature on the planet. Both of these geological features indicate that Mercury likely underwent significant changes in the recent past. 
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NASA
Astronomy
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