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Topography of the Northern Hemisphere of Mercury from MESSENGER Laser Altimetry

Science  13 Apr 2012:
Vol. 336, Issue 6078, pp. 217-220
DOI: 10.1126/science.1218805

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Mercury Inside and Out

The MESSENGER spacecraft orbiting Mercury has been in a ∼12-hour eccentric, near-polar orbit since 18 March 2011 (see the Perspective by McKinnon). Smith et al. (p. 214, published online 21 March) present the most recent determination of Mercury's gravity field, based on radio tracking of the MESSENGER spacecraft between 18 March and 23 August 2011. The results point to an interior structure that differs from those of the other terrestrial planets: the density of the planet's solid outer shell suggests the existence of a deep reservoir of high-density material, possibly an Fe-S layer. Zuber et al. (p. 217, published online 21 March) used data obtained by the MESSENGER laser altimeter through to 24 October 2011 to build a topographic map of Mercury's northern hemisphere. The map shows less variation in elevation, compared with Mars or the Moon, and its features add to the body of evidence that Mercury has sustained geophysical activity for much of its history.

Abstract

Laser altimetry by the MESSENGER spacecraft has yielded a topographic model of the northern hemisphere of Mercury. The dynamic range of elevations is considerably smaller than those of Mars or the Moon. The most prominent feature is an extensive lowland at high northern latitudes that hosts the volcanic northern plains. Within this lowland is a broad topographic rise that experienced uplift after plains emplacement. The interior of the 1500-km-diameter Caloris impact basin has been modified so that part of the basin floor now stands higher than the rim. The elevated portion of the floor of Caloris appears to be part of a quasi-linear rise that extends for approximately half the planetary circumference at mid-latitudes. Collectively, these features imply that long-wavelength changes to Mercury’s topography occurred after the earliest phases of the planet’s geological history.

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