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U.S. Geological Survey Releases First Topographic Map of Mercury

May 08, 2016 08:28 PM EDT
The planet Mercury is shown from a distance of approximately 17,000 miles, taken by NASA's Messenger spacecraft January 14, 2008 at the spacecraft's closest approach to planet. The image shows features as small as six miles in width. Similar to previously mapped portions of Mercury, this hemisphere appears heavily cratered. On the upper right is the giant Caloris basin, including its western portions never before seen by spacecraft. Formed by the impact of a large asteroid or comet, Caloris is one of the largest, and perhaps one of the youngest basins in the solar system (Photo : NASA via Getty Images)

U.S. Geological Survey, together with Arizona State University, Carnegie Institute of Washington, John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and NASA has released the first-ever detailed topographic map of Mercury.

The map was made by bringing together observations and scientific findings from NASA's MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft, which was the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury. The first-of-its-kind map shows a comprehensive illustration of planet's craters, volcanoes and tectonic landforms.

"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, in a press release.

"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." added Kestay.

In order to produce a highly detailed topographic map of Mercury, scientists from USGS develop a new sophisticated software applications and procedures using the Integrated Software for Imagers and Spectrometers. This new software changes the way large amounts of images are processed for the creation of a topographic map.

Using this new software, more than 100,000 spacecraft images and photos detailing Mercury's landforms and features are matched together to create a digital map.

"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.

"The wealth of these data, greatly enhanced by the extension of MESSENGER's primary one-year mission to more than four years, has already enabled and will continue to enable exciting scientific discoveries about Mercury for decades to come," said Susan Ensor, software engineer at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, said in a statement.

The MESSENGER spacecraft was launched in August 2004 and entered Mercury's orbit in March 2011. After extending its mission two times, the spacecraft finally retires, descending into Mercury in April 30, 2015.

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