Get a Change of View of Mercury’s North Pole

It’s always good to get a little change of perspective, and with this image we achieve just that: it’s a view of Mercury’s north pole projected as it might be seen from above a slightly more southerly latitude. Thanks to the MESSENGER spacecraft, with which this image was originally acquired, as well as the Arecibo Observatory here on Earth, scientists now know that these polar craters contain large deposits of water ice – which may seem surprising on an airless and searing-hot planet located so close to the Sun but not when you realize that the interiors of these craters never actually receive sunlight.

The locations of ice deposits are shown in the image in yellow. See below for a full-sized version.

Perspective view of Mercury's north pole made from MESSENGER MDIS data.
Perspective view of Mercury’s north pole made from MESSENGER MDIS images and Arecibo Observatory data. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

The five largest ice-filled craters in this view are (from front to back) the 112-km-wide Prokofiev and the smaller Kandinsky, Tolkien, Tryggvadottir, and Chesterton craters. A mosaic of many images acquired by MESSENGER’s Mercury Dual Imaging Sustem (MDIS) instrument during its time in orbit, you would never actually see a view of the planet’s pole illuminated like this in real life but orienting it this way helps put things into…well, perspective.

Radar observations from Arecibo showing bright areas on Mercury's north pole
Radar observations from Arecibo showing bright areas on Mercury’s north pole

Radar-bright regions in Mercury’s polar craters have been known about since 1992 when they were first imaged from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Located in areas of permanent shadow where sunlight never reaches (due to the fact that Mercury’s axial tilt is a mere 2.11º, unlike Earth’s much more pronounced 23.4º slant) they have since been confirmed by MESSENGER observations to contain frozen water and other volatile materials.

Read more: Ice Alert! Mercury’s Deposits Could Tell Us More About How Water Came To Earth

Similarly-shadowed craters on our Moon’s south pole have also been found to contain water ice, although those deposits appear different in composition, texture, and age. It’s suspected that some of Mercury’s frozen materials may have been delivered later than those found on the Moon, or are being restored via an ongoing process. Read more about these findings here.

Explore Mercury’s shadowed craters with the Water Ice Data Exploration (WIDE) app

In orbit around Mercury since 2011, MESSENGER is now nearing the end of its operational life. Engineers have figured out a way to extend its fuel use for an additional month, possibly delaying its inevitable descent until April, but even if this maneuver goes as planned the spacecraft will be meeting Mercury’s surface very soon.

Source: MESSENGER

Lighting Up Mercury’s Shadowy North Pole

Part of a stereographic projection of Mercury’s north pole

Talk about northern exposure! This is a section of a much larger image, released today by the MESSENGER team, showing the heavily-cratered north pole of Mercury as seen by the MESSENGER spacecraft’s Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS) instrument.

See the full-size image below:

Many MDIS images were averaged together to create a mosaic of Mercury’s polar region, which this stereographic projection is centered on. MESSENGER is at its lowest altitude as it passes over Mercury’s northern hemisphere — about  200 kilometers (124 miles), which is just a little over half the altitude of the ISS.

The largest centrally-peaked crater near the center is Prokofiev, named after a 20th-century Russian composer. Approximately 110 km (68 mi.) in diameter, its permanently-shadowed interior is home to radar-bright deposits that are thought to contain water ice.

Even though Mercury is almost three times closer to the Sun than Earth is and hosts searing daytime temperatures of 425ºC (800ºF), there’s virtually no atmosphere to hold or transmit that heat. Nighttime temperatures can reach as low as -185ºC (-300ºF), and since a day on Mercury is 176 Earth days long it gets very cold for quite a long time!

Also, because Mercury’s axis of rotation isn’t tilted like Earth’s, low elevation areas near the poles receive literally no sunlight. Unless vaporized by a meteorite impact any ice gathered inside these deep craters would remain permanently frozen.

Here’s an orthographic projection of the image above, showing what the scene would look like on Mercury — that is, if it was ever fully lit by the Sun, which it isn’t.

Many of the craters on Mercury’s north pole have recently been named after famous artists, authors and composers, such as Kandinsky, Stieglitz, Goethe, and even one named after J.R.R. Tolkien. You can see an annotated image showing the names of Mercury’s north polar craters here.

Read More: “The Hobbit” Author Gets a Crater on Mercury

On November 29, NASA will host a news conference at 2 p.m. EST to reveal new observations from MESSENGER, the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury. The news conference will be carried live on NASA Television and the agency’s website… you can tune in on NASA TV here. 

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