First Global Topographic Map of Mercury Released

Release Date:

The first topographic map of Mercury was released today by the U.S. Geological Survey, Arizona State University, Carnegie Institute of Washington, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and NASA.

This high-resolution map provides the first comprehensive view of Mercury’s entire surface, illustrating the planet’s craters, volcanoes and tectonic landforms. This product brings together observations and scientific findings from NASA’s MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft, which was the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury.

Scientists used data from the MESSENGER spacecraft to produce a highly detailed topographic map, similar to the type of map used by hikers to illustrate elevation changes and landforms. The spacecraft's cameras and sophisticated instruments collected unprecedented images during MESSENGER’s mission, which began in 2011 and included 4,104 orbits around Mercury. The new USGS map and additional information are available online.

“The creation of this map is a prime example of the utility and beauty that can come out of overcoming complex cartographic problems,” said Lazlo Kestay, USGS Astrogeology Science Center Director. “This highly aesthetic product literally provides a whole new dimension to the study of Mercury images, opening many new paths to understanding the surface, interior, and past of the closest planet to the sun."

USGS scientists created cutting-edge, sophisticated new software applications and procedures that changed the way large amounts of images are processed for the purpose of creating topographic maps. Many of Mercury’s landforms, or features, were identified in more than 100,000 spacecraft images, and the photos were then accurately matched together to create a digital map.

Topographic Map of Mercury with Features
The full Topographic Map of Mercury with labeled features. The highest elevation on the planet is located just south of the equator, and about 2.5 miles above Mercury's average elevation. The lowest elevation, which is more than three miles below Mercury’s average, is found on the floor of Rachmaninoff basin, a basin suspected to host some of the most recent volcanic deposits on the planet.

Challenges arise when trying to match images taken from different spacecraft locations and ranges around the planet’s surface. As the direction to the sun changes in relation to Mercury, images will also have varying levels of brightness and shadows. This new software-based technique, developed by the USGS Astrogeology team using the Integrated Software for Imagers and Spectrometers, has greatly improved scientists’ ability to overcome these difficulties and resulted in the largest dataset ever processed in the center’s software system.

“We are eager to apply what we learned from this mapping effort to small bodies such as asteroids and comets, as well as other planets and moons,” said Kris Becker, USGS scientist and lead map investigator.

“Production of the digital elevation model of Mercury is the capstone of a significant scientific achievement of the MESSENGER mission,” said Ralph McNutt, MESSENGER team member and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory scientist. “This product reveals the entirety of the innermost planet of the solar system, less than half glimpsed during the three flybys of Mercury carried out by the Mariner 10 spacecraft over 40 years ago. As such, it is yet another indicator of the turning point from reconnaissance through exploration of Mercury by MESSENGER to an era of intensive study of Mercury in years to come.”

Before the launch of MESSENGER, little was known about the planet Mercury. Launched in August 2004, the MESSENGER spacecraft traveled 4.9 billion miles - a journey that included 15 trips around the sun and flybys of Earth once, Venus twice and Mercury three times - before it was inserted into orbit around its target planet in March 2011. Although it completed its primary science objectives by March 2012, the spacecraft’s mission was extended two times, allowing it to capture additional images and information about the planet in unprecedented detail. MESSENGER’s voyage to Mercury surpassed expectations and ended with its descent and impact onto the surface on April 30, 2015.

MESSENGER data for scientific use is available from the Planetary Data System archive.

For more information about USGS planetary science efforts, visit the USGS Astrogeology Science Center website.

Topographic Map of Mercury
USGS scientists created the first global topographic map of Mercury. This high-resolution map provides the first comprehensive view of Mercury’s entire surface, illustrating the planet’s craters, volcanoes and tectonic landforms. Mercury’s surface is colored according the topography of the surface, with regions with higher elevations colored brown, yellow and red, and regions with lower elevations appearing blue and purple.