WASHINGTON - Earth's first nearly full look at Mercury reveals that the tiny lifeless planet took a far greater role in shaping itself than was thought, with volcanoes spewing "mysterious dark blue material."
New images from NASA's Messenger space probe should help settle a decades-old debate about what caused parts of Mercury to be somewhat smoother than it should be. NASA released photos Wednesday, from Messenger's fly-by earlier this month, that gave the answer: Lots of volcanic activity, far more than signs from an earlier probe.
Astronomers used to dismiss Mercury, the planet closest to the sun, as mere "dead rock," little more than a target for cosmic collisions that shaped it, said MIT planetary scientist Maria Zuber.
"Now, it's looking a lot more interesting," said Zuber, who has experiments on the Messenger probe. "It's an awful lot of volcanic material."
New images of filled-in craters - one the size of the Baltimore-Washington area and filled in with more than a mile deep of cooled lava - show that 3.8 to 4 billion years ago, Mercury was more of a volcanic hotspot than the moon ever was, Zuber said.
But it isn't just filled-in craters. Using special cameras, the probe showed what one scientist called "the mysterious dark blue material." It was all over the planet. That led Arizona State University geologist Mark Robinson to speculate that the mineral is important but still unknown stuff ejected from Mercury's large core in the volcanic eruptions.
That material was seen with NASA's first partial view of Mercury by Mariner 10 in the 1970s. It was spotted again in Messenger's first images of Mercury's unseen side earlier this year. The latest Messenger images, added to earlier photos show about 95 percent of the planet, and the blue stuff was in many places, more than astronomers had anticipated.
Although Robinson described the material as "dark blue," it only looks that way to special infrared cameras. In normal visible light, it would have "a soft blue tinge and it would be less red" than the rest of Mercury, he said.
It's too early to tell what that material is, but it may have iron in it, Robinson said. That would be a surprise because Mariner 10 didn't find much iron, he said.
On the Net:
NASA's Mercury mission: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/messenger/main/index.html