Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering in the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan

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MESSENGER Team Releases First Global Map of Mercury

Posted: December 15, 2009

NASA’s MESSENGER (http://messenger.jhuapl.edu) mission team, which includes Professor of Space Science and Aerospace Engineering and Associate Dean for Entrepreneurship Thomas Zurbuchan and AOSS Lead Mission Operations Engineering Jim Raines, have created a critical tool for planning the first orbital observations of the planet Mercury – a global mosaic of the planet that will help scientists pinpoint craters, faults, and other features for observation. The map was created from images taken during the MESSENGER spacecraft’s three flybys of the planet and those of Mariner 10 in the 1970s.

The MESSENGER team has been busily preparing for the yearlong orbital phase of the mission, beginning in March 2011, and the near-global mosaic of Mercury from MESSENGER and Mariner 10 images is key to those plans.

“The production of this global mosaic represents a major milestone for everyone on the MESSENGER imaging team,” says MESSENGER Principal Investigator Sean Solomon of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. “Beyond its extremely important use as a planning tool, this global map signifies that MESSENGER is no longer a flyby mission but instead will soon become an in-depth, non-stop global observatory of the Solar System’s innermost planet.”

Much work was done with the Mariner 10 images collected in 1974 and 1975 to make an absolute control network even though only 45% of the planet was seen at the time. The longitude system for Mercury is tied to a small crater named Hun Kal (the number twenty in an ancient Mayan language, because the crater is centered at 20°W). For now, MESSENGER data are tied to the earlier Mariner 10 control network. Absolute positional errors in the new mosaic are about two kilometers, according to the MESSENGER team. Once the MESSENGER spacecraft orbits Mercury, much progress will be made refining the relative and absolute control of the MESSENGER (and Mariner 10) images, and the entire planet will be imaged at even higher resolution. The global mosaic is available for download on the USGS Map-a-Planet web site, http://www.mapaplanet.org.

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