Postcards From The (Inner) Edge

As the world turns its gaze outward in anticipation of the arrival of Mars Science Laboratory — with its hair-raising “seven minutes of terror” landing — let’s take a moment to look back inward, where MESSENGER is still faithfully orbiting the first rock from the Sun, Mercury, and sending back images that could only have been imagined just a few years ago.

The image above shows the graben-gouged terrain around Balanchine crater, within Mercury’s vast Caloris Basin impact crater. Named for the co-founder of the New York City Ballet, Balanchine crater is 41 km (25.5 miles) in diameter and filled with the curious erosion features known as hollows. Graben — basically sunken troughs in the surface — are the result of extensional forces that have pulled sections of the planet’s upper crust apart.

This image shows the peak-ring structure located within the much larger crater Rustaveli, which is 180 km (112 miles) in diameter. One of the more recently-named craters (the IAU convention for new features on Mercury has them titled after renowned artists, writers and composers from history) Rustaveli is named for a 12th-century Georgian poet who wrote the epic “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin”. The crater that now bears his namesake is located on Mercury’s northern hemisphere.

These two craters — also located within Caloris Basin — don’t yet have names but are no less interesting. Their overlapping positions works like an optical illusion, making the newer,sharper-edged crater on the right seem to almost float above the surface. The false-color of the image highlights the difference in surface composition of the two craters, which are both about 40 km (24 miles) wide. (The Caloris Basin in which they reside, however, is one of the largest known impact sites in our solar system, measuring at 1550 km — 963 miles — across!)

Now we zoom out for a wider view of our solar system’s second-densest planet (Earth is the first) and take a look at an image that’s night and day — literally! This is Mercury’s terminator, the twilit dividing line between night and day. More than just making a pretty picture, data on this transition is valuable to scientists as some atmospheric phenomena can only be observed at the terminator, such as the interaction between surface dust and charged particles from the Sun (which, at less than half the distance to the Sun than we are, Mercury is constantly bathed in.)

And now to zoom back in, we get a good look at an unnamed central-peaked crater about 85 km (52 miles) across in an oblique view  that highlights the hollows and depressions within its floor. Acquired as part of what’s called a “targeted observation”, high-resolution images like this (79 meters/pixel) allow scientists to closely investigate specific features — but sadly there’s just not enough mission time to image all of Mercury at this level of detail.

On March 17, 2011 (March 18, 2011, UTC), MESSENGER became the first spacecraft ever to orbit Mercury. The mission has provided the first data from Mercury since Mariner 10, over 30 years ago. After over 1,000 orbits, 98 percent of Mercury is now imaged in detail, allowing us to know more about our solar system’s innermost world than ever before.

Keep up with MESSENGER updates (and the latest images) on the mission website here.

Image credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

An Epic Crater Called Odysseus

On June 28 NASA’s Cassini spacecraft passed by Tethys, a 1,062-kilometer (662-mile) -wide moon of Saturn that’s made almost entirely of ice. Tethys is covered in craters of all sizes but by far the most dramatic of all is the enormous Odysseus crater, which spans an impressive 450 kilometers (280 miles) of the moon’s northern hemisphere — nearly two-fifths of its entire diameter!

In fact, whatever struck Tethys in the distant past probably should have shattered it into pieces… but didn’t.

Tethys likely held itself together because when the impact occurred that formed Odysseus, the moon was still partially molten. It was able to absorb some of the energy of the impact and thus avoid disintegration — although it was left with a quite the battle scar as an eternal reminder.

The images below are raw images from Cassini’s latest pass of Tethys, showing the moon’s rugged terrain and portions of Odysseus from a distance of 68,521 kilometers (42,577 miles).

The central peak of Odysseus has collapsed, leaving a depression — another indication that the moon wasn’t entirely solid at the time of impact.

Tethys orbits Saturn at a distance of 294,660 kilometers (183,100 miles), about 62,000 miles closer than the Moon is from Earth. Such a close proximity to Saturn subjects Tethys to tidal forces, the frictional heating of which likely helped keep it from cooling and solidifying longer than more distant moons. As a result Tethys appears somewhat less cratered than sister moons Rhea and Dione, which still bear the marks of their earliest impacts… although looking at the region south of Odysseus it’s hard to image a more extensively-cratered place.

Tethys is just another reminder of the violent place our solar system can be. Find out more about Tethys on the Cassini mission site here.

Image credits: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute. Edited by J. Major. Images have not been calibrated or validated, and each has been level-adjusted and sharpened to bring out surface detail, and in some areas deinterlacing was used to remove linear raw image artifacts.

Exploration at its Finest: Cassini Visits Dione


After completing its most recent flyby of Enceladus, Cassini made a pass by Dione — its final visit of the icy moon for the next three years. Coming within  5,000 miles (8000 km) of Dione on May 2, Cassini captured some fantastic images of the moon’s heavily-cratered and frozen surface. Here’s just a few of the raw images that arrived back here on Earth earlier today:

Crescent-lit Dione, with some reflected light via Saturnshine
A nearly fully-lit Dione, with Saturn's rings in the background
Dione's extensively-cratered limb
Some of Dione's signature "wispy lines", bright icy faces of sheer cliffs now known to be tectonic in origin
A color-composite image of an ancient impact crater on the edge of Dione's Saturn-facing side - this could be from the impact that spun the moon 180 degrees. (NASA/JPL/SSI/J. Major)

698 miles (1123 km) in diameter, Dione orbits Saturn at about the same distance that the Moon orbits Earth. Its composition is two-thirds water ice, which at the incredibly cold temperatures found around Saturn behaves like rock does here on Earth.


Cassini won’t visit Dione so closely again until June 2015, after spending three years angled high out of the equatorial plane while it studies Saturn’s rings and polar regions.

As Carolyn Porco, Cassini Imaging Team Leader said today, “This is exploration at its finest. It won’t continue forever. So, enjoy it while it lasts!”

See more on the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations (CICLOPS) site here.

Image credits: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute 


Scientists Suggest Evidence of Recent Lunar Volcanism


A team of researchers at India’s Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) claims it has found evidence of relatively recent volcanic activity on the Moon, using data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Chadrayaan-1 spacecraft. According to the findings the central peak of Tycho crater contains features that are volcanic in origin, indicating that the Moon was geologically active during the crater’s formation 110 million years ago.

In an article by the Deccan Herald, a Bangalore-based  publication, the PRL researchers claim that vents, lava channels and solidified flows of inner crustal material found within Tycho were made as recently as 100 million years ago — after the creation of the crater.

This could indicate that there was pre-existing volcanic activity within the Moon at the site of the Tycho impact, lending credence to the idea that the Moon was recently geologically active.

In addition, large boulders ranging in size from 33 meters to hundreds of yards across have been spotted on Tycho’s central peaks by LRO, including one 400-foot (120-meter) -wide specimen nestled atop the highest summit. How did such large boulders get there and what are they made of?

A 400-foot-wide boulder within the central peak of Tycho. (NASA/GSFC/LROC)

The researchers hint that they may also be volcanic in origin.

“A surprise findings revealed the  presence of large boulders–about 100 meter in size –on top of the peak. Nobody knew how did they reach the top,” said Prakash Chauhan, a PRL scientist.

Without further studies it’s difficult to determine the exact origin and ages of these lunar formations. The team awaits future research by Chandrayaan-II, which will examine the Moon from orbit as well as land a rover onto the lunar surface. Chandrayaan-II is expected to launch in early 2014.

The PRL team’s findings were published in the April 10 issue of Current Science.

Read the article in the Deccan Herald here.



Named after the 17th-century metaphysical poet, Mercury’s Donne crater was captured in this image by NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft. The 53-mile (83-km) -wide crater features a large, rounded central peak and numerous lobate scarps lining its floor.

Lobate scarps are found all across Mercury. Visible above as arc-shaped ridges, they are most likely thrust faults resulting from surface compression and contraction.

Donne’s central peak has been well-eroded by impacts into a softly rolling mound. Central peaks are common features of larger craters, thought to be formed when the excavation of material during an impact springs the crater floor upwards — a process called “isostatic rebound”.

This image was acquired by MESSENGER’s Narrow-Angle Camera (NAC) on August 2, 2011.

On March 17 MESSENGER successfully wrapped up a year-long campaign to perform the first complete reconnaissance of the geochemistry, geophysics, geologic history, atmosphere, magnetosphere, and plasma environment of Mercury. The following day, March 18, marked the official start of its extended phase designed to build upon those discoveries.

“Six plus years of cruise operations, capped by a year of nearly flawless orbital operations, with an additional year of scientific return ahead in the harsh environment at 0.3 astronomical units (27,886,766 miles) from the Sun,” said MESSENGER Mission Systems Engineer Eric Finnegan at JHU/APL. All this “achieved with a 1,000 kg satellite, designed, built, and launched in less than four years for a total mission cost of less than $450 million.”

Well “Donne”, MESSENGER!

Read more about the MESSENGER mission’s extension here.

Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington.

A Peek at a Pitch-Black Pit


MESSENGER captured this high-resolution image of an elongated pit crater within the floor of the 355-km (220-mile) -wide crater Tolstoj on Mercury on Jan. 11, 2012. The low angle of sun illumination puts the interior of the pit crater into deep shadow, making it appear bottomless.

Pit craters are not caused by impacts, but rather by the collapse of the roof of an underground magma chamber. They are characterized by the lack of a rim or surrounding ejecta blankets, and are often not circular in shape.

Since the floor of Tolstoj crater is thought to have once been flooded by lava, a pit crater is not out of place here.

The presence of such craters on Mercury indicates past volcanic activity on Mercury contributing to the planet’s evolution.

Read more on the MESSENGER mission website here.

Image credit: : NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Mercury Down Under


NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft, about to wrap up its first full year in orbit around Mercury, captured this view of the planet’s heavily-cratered southern hemisphere on August 28, 2011. Because of its orbit, MESSENGER gets particularly good panoramic views of Mercury’s underside.

Here’s why…

MESSENGER’s orbit, established on March 18, 2011 at 00:45 UTC, is not a simple circling path around the first rock from the Sun. Instead it is highly elliptical, bringing it 124 miles (200 km) above Mercury’s north pole at its closest and more than 9,420 miles (15,193 km) from its south pole at its farthest! (See diagram below.)

The close approaches over the northern hemisphere allow MESSENGER to study the Caloris basin, Mercury’s largest surface feature and, at over 960 miles (1,550 km) across, one of the largest impact craters in the entire Solar System.

The view of Mercury’s southern hemisphere above features some notable craters as well: the relatively youthful 444-mile (715-km) -wide Rembrandt basin is seen at top right, while the smaller pit-floor crater Kipling can be discerned to its left, just below the planet’s limb.

When craters are larger than 300 km in diameter, they are referred to as basins.

During its 12 months in orbit MESSENGER will have experienced only two days on Mercury! This is because Mercury rotates very slowly on its axis, completing a full solar day (sunrise to sunrise) every 176 Earth days. (And you thought your work day seemed to last forever!)

Three perspectives of MESSENGER's orbit.

Find out more about the MESSENGER mission here.

Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington. 

Degas: a Crater Painted Blue


This image, acquired by NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft on December 12, 2011, reveals the blue coloration of the 32-mile (52-km) -wide Degas crater located in Mercury’s Sobkou Planitia region.

Degas’ bright central peaks are highly reflective in this view, and may be surrounded by hollows — patches of sunken, eroded ground first identified by MESSENGER last year.

Such blue-colored material within craters has been increasingly identified as more of Mercury’s surface is revealed in detail by MESSENGER images. It is likely due to an as-yet-unspecified type of dark subsurface rock, revealed by impact events.

The slightly larger, more eroded crater that Degas abuts is named Brontë.

The image was acquired with MESSENGER’s Wide Angle Camera (WAC) of the Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS), using filters 9, 7, 6 (996, 748, 433 nanometers) in red, green, and blue, respectively.

Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Bright Peaks, Dark Shadows


The 68-mile (109-km) -wide Amaral crater on Mercury reveals its brightly-tipped central peaks in this image, acquired by NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft on Feb. 4, 2012. Long shadows are cast by the crater’s peaks and rugged rim (north is to the left.)

The image was acquired as a high-resolution targeted observation with MESSENGER’s Narrow-Angle Camera (NAC) on its Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS).

Amaral’s bright peaks were first spotted during MESSENGER’s first flyby of Mercury in Jan. 2008. With a smooth floor, visible ejecta and small secondary craters, Amaral appeared noticeably younger than the heavily cratered surface around it.

Amaral's "blue" peaks seen in a color-enhanced global image acquired Jan. 14, 2008.

Its central peaks also attracted astronomers’ interest, as they were seen to possess a striking blue hue in color-enhanced images that likely indicates rocks with different composition from the surrounding surface.

Amaral’s peaks resemble those of the slightly larger crater Eminescu, which is now known to contain recently-discovered features called hollows. It’s not yet known if Amaral also contains hollows, but it’s suspected that they may be present on the tips of the peaks.

The crater is named after Brazilian artist Tarsila do Amaral. She lived from 1886 to 1973 and is considered to be one of the leading Latin American modernist painters.

Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Kuiper’s Color Close-Up


The pale-orange coloration around the 39-mile (62-km) -wide Kuiper crater on Mercury is evident in this image, a color composition made from targeted images acquired by NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft on September 2, 2011.

The color may be due to compositional differences in the material that was ejected during the impact that formed the crater.

Kuiper crater is named after Gerard Kuiper, a Dutch-American astronomer who was a member of the Mariner 10 team. He is regarded by many as the father of modern planetary science.

“Kuiper studied the planets… at a time when they were scarcely of interest to other astronomers. But with new telescopes and instrumentation, he showed that there were great things to discover, which is as true today as it was then.”

– Dr. Bill McKinnon, Professor of Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis

Airless worlds like Mercury are constantly bombarded with micrometeoroids and charged solar particles in an effect known as “space weathering”. Craters with bright rays — like Kuiper — are thought to be relatively young because they have had less exposure to space weathering than craters without such rays.

See the original image release on the MESSENGER site here.

Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington