For my research, I am constructing a geological map of a section (or 'quadrangle') of the planet Mercury about equal in area to half the USA. Since Mercury is much smaller than the Earth, this amounts to 1/15th of the surface of the innermost planet. Far from being a featureless world, Mercury is host to tectonic landforms that indicate that the planet's history has been dominated by global contraction, as well as extensive lava plains, sites of explosive volcanism and an inventory of craters recording the environment in which the rocky inner planets formed.
In order to study the geology of Solar System planets, we need to use planetary images and other data from spacecraft. The first spacecraft to visit Mercury was NASA's Mariner 10 in the 1970s. When it flew past the planet, it showed that Mercury had widespread evidence for contraction and a magnetic field, but it only imaged about half of the planet's surface. The next spacecraft sent to Mercury was NASA's MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) mission. MESSENGER was in orbit around the planet for just over four years and successfully imaged the whole surface. I am using high-resolution MESSENGER data to make a map of part of Mercury that was not imaged by Mariner 10, meaning that this map will be the first of its kind. My work is part of an international effort to complete all the quadrangles in preparation for the upcoming European space mission to Mercury, BepiColombo, which will launch in 2017/18.
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