Jan 21, 2018 | Updated: 09:54 AM EDT

New NASA Maps Reveal Secrets of Mercury

Mar 18, 2015 12:42 PM EDT

The planet closest to the sun has continued to be shrouded in mystery for many years. Now, NASA has unveiled never before seen formations on the surface with two maps created from data from NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft that has been orbiting the planet since 2004.

The MESSENGER probe, otherwise known as the MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging probe, is the first ever spacecraft to orbit Mercury and studies the planet's chemical composition, geology and magnetic field.

The new maps reveal previously unidentified regions of Mercury and include regions that have compositions that differ significantly from the crust surrounding them. Scientists hope that these zones will provide insights into the formation of the outer surface of the planet. The maps also suggest that these recently discovered features might have formed in the mantle and not from the planet's crust.

The maps were created using MESSENGER's X-Ray Spectrometer and the Gamma-Ra Spectrometer instruments that are being used to study the surface chemistry of Mercury.

Scientists will analyze the data to reveal data about the concentrations of elements such as potassium, uranium and sodium on the surface, as well as give them the ratios of silicon to other elements on the surface.

The consistency of the new XRS and GRS maps provides a new dimension to our view of Mercury's surface," said lead author Shoshana Weider, of the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

"The terrains we observed had not been previously identified on the basis of spectral reflectance or geographical mapping."

The most visible of these features is a large feature covering over five million square kilometers of the surface. This terrain consists of the largest concentrations of silicone to each of the elements of magnesium, sulfur and calcium while also having the lowest aluminum to silicon ratios on the planet. Scientists theorize that this unusual feature is from an impact event that occurred long ago.

The second map using GRS shows the distribution across Mercury's northern hemisphere of elements that absorb thermal neutrons. From the data Scientists were able to identify four distinct geochemical terrains by combining the information with previously obtained data.

"The crust we see on Mercury was largely formed more than 3 billion years ago," said Larry Nittler, deputy principle investigator of the mission and co-author on both studies.

"The remarkable chemical variability revealed by MESSENGER observations will provide critical constraints on future efforts to model and understand Mercury's bulk composition and the ancient geological processes that shaped the planet's mantle and crust."

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