First global topographic map of Mercury released

by Lucas Joel
Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Mercury’s surface is arid, gray and scarred by craters over much of its landscape. Given its close proximity to the sun, a manned trip to Mercury is out of the question — but now you can explore Mercury’s pockmarked surface in its entirety with the first global topographic map of the planet.

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists stitched the new Mercury map together using more than 100,000 images from NASA’s MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging) spacecraft. Among other prominent features visible on the map is Rachmaninoff Basin — named for Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff — which sits roughly 5 kilometers below Mercury’s average elevation and is thought to contain some of the planet’s youngest volcanic deposits. (Many other notable musician-inspired names can be found on the map as well, including Mozart Crater just north of Mercury’s equator and Beethoven and Lennon craters in the southern hemisphere.)

Challenges associated with this kind of mapmaking — for instance, matching adjacent images taken under different sunlight conditions — were overcome with new USGS-developed software called Integrated Software for Imagers and Spectrometers. “This map is a prime example of the utility and beauty that can come out of overcoming complex cartographic problems,” said Laszlo Kestay, the director of the USGS Astrogeology Science Center, in a press release. It “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.”

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