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Messages of Wonder

Posted By Bill Dunford

18-03-2013 16:22 CDT

Topics: pretty pictures, amateur image processing, pics of Earth by planetary missions, Mercury, Venus, Earth, the Moon, MESSENGER

Two years ago today, after an odyssey of nearly seven years and eight billion kilometers, the MESSENGER spacecraft slipped into orbit around the planet Mercury. In order to contain costs in the face of the need for intense speed, the journey was not a direct flight. Instead it included 15 trips around the sun, along with several gravity-boost flybys of Earth, Venus, and Mercury itself before the spacecraft finally reached its long-term orbit around the first planet.

Once there, the robotic explorer survived extreme temperatures and blasts of solar radiation in order to reveal the entire surface of a world that--until now--had never been fully mapped.

Mercury may not look like much at first glance. It's small, airless, and its landscapes look a lot like the cratered surface of the Earth's moon that we know so well. But the MESSENGER mission has been an expedition into some pretty strange territory. The spacecraft's instruments have uncovered diverse geology and chemistry on the ground, including unexpected, blue-ish 'hollows' that may be places where volatile substances sublimate right out of the ground under the intense bombardment from the sun.

Most famously, the mission put to rest years of speculation when it confirmed that this hell-hot world hides large deposits of water ice near the poles, where the sun never shines.

The MESSENGER adventure may come to an end soon, as the project's budget runs out this week. If an extension can be secured, Mercury explorers will be able to study the surface at very close range while the spacecraft spirals slowly down to its inevitable 'lithobraking' (impact). There might also be a chance to observe the approaching comet ISON--which could be quite a spectacular and revelatory show from the unique vantage point of the closest planet to the sun.

Meanwhile, here are some of the amazing sights the probe has captured during the past few years, including some that you might not have seen before, culled from the data MESSENGER sent back home.

Buzzing the Homeworld

NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington/Bill Dunford

Buzzing the Homeworld
The MESSENGER spacecraft, en route to Mercury, gets a gravity boost by flying by the home planet. With its jewel-like seas and clouds, it is immediately clear that this world is unique in the Solar System.

A New Look At an Old Friend

NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington/Bill Dunford

A New Look At an Old Friend
This might look like a Voyager snapshot of a moon of Neptune, but it's the far side of our own, seen by the MESSENGER spacecraft as it swung near Earth on its way to Mercury. I've sharpened and enhanced the contrast of the original image.

The Clouds of Venus

NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington/Bill Dunford

The Clouds of Venus
The MESSENGER probe, en route to Mercury, passes by Venus. I've stretched the contrast to draw out details in the cloud tops, which look nearly undifferentiated to the unaided eye.

Warhol Crater

NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington/Bill Dunford

Warhol Crater
Mercury's Warhol Crater as seen by the MESSENGER spacecraft, showing mysterious 'hollows' and a crater chain.

Debussy in Color

NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington/Bill Dunford

Debussy in Color
Mercury's terminator--the line dividing night from day--and the striking crater Debussy, as seen by the MESSENGER orbiter. Mercury would appear largely gray if you flew there in person. But the subtle colors of its surface come alive if you increase the saturation level as I've done here.
New Map of an Old World

NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington/Applied Coherent Technology Corporation

New Map of an Old World
Detail from the northern reaches of a newly-released, color, global, 1 km/pixel mosaic of the surface of Mercury as imaged by the MESSENGER mission.
 
See other posts from March 2013

 

Read more blog entries about: pretty pictures, amateur image processing, pics of Earth by planetary missions, Mercury, Venus, Earth, the Moon, MESSENGER

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