A Spin Through the Inner Solar System

More than 50 years of planetary exploration have yielded a rich harvest of data, including many volumes of pictures. These images have revealed the faces of nearly all the nearby worlds, which have turned out to be both forboding and inviting, alien and familiar. Everywhere there is beauty.

We have enough images, in fact, that for many planets, moons, and small bodies we can construct full, global maps. This has been true for places like Mars for decades. For others, such as Mercury and the asteroid Vesta, it has become possible only in the past few years, thanks to the ongoing work of robotic scouts throughout the Solar System and the dedicated people on Earth who fly them.

Following is a series of short videos showing the worlds of the inner Solar System spinning to show their various faces. With two exceptions, each video resulted from taking thousands of individual observations from spacecraft, and combining the data into a 3D computer model.

This look at the Sun comes from the Solar Dynamics Observatory in orbit around the Earth. It shows the Sun as it appeared over the course of the past few days, as seen by sensors tuned to three different wavelengths of extreme ultraviolet light. Later in the decade, new missions will actually fly close to the Sun for even more detailed shots.

This globe comes from thousands of obesrvations by the MESSENGER spacecraft in orbit around Mercury. MESSENGER carries cameras that can observe many wavelenths of light as it bounces off the planet, in order to spy different minerals on the surface. This map shows greatly exaggerated colors in order to highlight the diversity of geology.

Venus is entirely shrouded in dense clouds, of course, but in the 1990s the Magellan spacecraft mapped the surface anyway using radar. The video highlights two large “continents,” or highlands, Aphrodite Terra and Ishtar Terra, the Maxwell Montes mountain range, and Maat Mons, a large, currently dormant volcano. Notice the motion of the clouds at the beginning. Venus is the one inner planet that rotates “backwards” to the other planets.

This map of the moon comes from thousands of photos sent by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Each was taken when the Sun was nearly directly overhead at the moment the image was taken. When all stitched together, they make a globe of striking crispness and clarity.

Here is Mars, showing both the actual relief of its surface features, and a version where the topographical data has been wildly stretched to draw out the planet’s complex landscapes.

Finally, we have Vesta, a tiny place compared to these other worlds, but a giant among the members of the asteroid belt. This rotation is not a computer model, but a series of images stitched together from photos sent by the Dawn spacecraft.

These spinning globes show how much we’ve explored. On the other hand, they serve as a reminder of how much remains unseen. There is no rotating map of the largest asteroid Ceres, or of Pluto. That situation will change next year. However, there are many other worlds in the outer Solar System where there are still blank spaces on the map. Sadly, there are no missions even on the drawing board to explore most of them.

There is still much to do.

This article originally appeared as a guest post on The Planetary Society site.

 

Hidden Treasures

mineral map of Vesta
A false-color mineral map of the asteroid Vesta, overlaid on a natural-color image. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech/UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA / Mike Malaska

The robotic spacecraft Dawn has now settled into its science orbit around the second-largest asteroid, Vesta. Dawn is now orbiting at a distance of about 2,700 kilometres, some six times closer than when the initial observations, such as the one above, were made last month.

This will give scientists a chance to get a closer look at the large, weird crater at Vesta’s south pole, a series of equatorial ridges, and other unexpected features.

In this image, Mike Malaska has overlaid an enhanced, false-color mineral map over a natural-color shot of the same area. The different colors represent different kinds of minerals, revealing what the eye can’t see on its own.

Sent by: Dawn | From: Vesta | Released: July, 2011 | Credit: NASA/JPL/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/Malaska | Image source

Dawn Begins Official Science Phase, Investigates Weird Crater

The robotic spacecraft Dawn has now settled into its science orbit around the second-largest asteroid, Vesta. Dawn is now orbiting at a distance of about 2,700 kilometres, some six times closer than when the initial observations were made last month.

This will give scientists a chance to get a closer look at the large, weird crater at Vesta’s south pole, a series of equatorial ridges, and other unexpected features.

The science journal Nature reports that one theory to explain the crater’s unusual characteristics: Vesta completed an entire revolution while the crater was forming. See the full story.

All Eyes on Vesta

asteroid Vesta

From JPL: “NASA’s Dawn spacecraft obtained this image of the giant asteroid Vesta with its framing camera on July 9, 2011. It was taken from a distance of about 26,000 miles (41,000 kilometers) away from Vesta, which is also considered a protoplanet because it is a large body that almost became a planet. Each pixel in the image corresponds to roughly 2.4 miles (3.8 kilometers).”

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA