Space enthusiasts who might be wondering what the surface of Mercury looks like can now find out using new digital maps developed by NASA and its partner organizations.
The first of the new maps was created by agency scientists using data collected by MESSENGER spacecraft, which carried out observations of Mercury for four years.
Through the use of space probe's Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS) instrument, the researchers were able to produce photographs that showed the volcanic plains in Mercury's northern region. They discovered that previous volcanic activity in the region had buried an area close to two-thirds the size of the continental U.S. under a mile deep of lava.
NASA also used data from the spacecraft's X-Ray Spectrometer (XRS) to develop an X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy map of Mercury. This chemical map will allow scientists to examine the geological history of the planet.
A third map was developed by scientists at the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) of the Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. They combined 10,000 high quality images collected by MESSENGER in order to create a model that shows the various high and low points of Mercury.
The planet's highest point, located south of its equator, stands at about 2.78 miles above the planet's average elevation.
Its lowest point, on the other hand, can be found within an area of recent volcanic activity on Mercury known as the Rachmaninoff basin, and it stands at about 3.34 miles below the average elevation on the planet.
Susan Ensor, head of the MESSENGER Science Operations Center at APL, explained that the data they were able to gather throughout the spacecraft's four-year orbit of Mercury has already allowed them to make exciting scientific finds and that they will continue to make new discoveries over the next few decades.
At the end of MESSENGER's orbit of Mercury, mission controllers decided to have the spacecraft crash into the planet. Data gathered by the space probe, however, continues to provide researchers with valuable insights on the smallest planet in the Solar System.