What’s so great about Mercury? Quite a bit, actually.

What’s so great about Mercury? Isn’t it a bit boring, with no rings (like Saturn has), no giant storms the size of Earth (as on Jupiter), and in fact nothing but loads and loads of craters?

Even if doesn’t seem particularly special, Mercury still looks beautiful, and it can tell us a great deal about the history of our own planet.

NASA’s Messenger probe, the first one to visit in over 30 years, has taken some stunning shots, a few of which are posted below. Click to enlarge.

For more information, NPR’s Science Friday had a fascinating interview with a scientist working on the project, which can be downloaded here (about 20 minutes long)

NASA

Messenger actually got just 125 km from Mercury’s surface, enabling it to get detailed pictures of the craters that cover this rocky planet. One crater, the Caloris basin, is among the biggest in the Solar System.

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NASA

 Why so many craters?

The other planets have been bombarded almost as much as Mercury during their 4.5 billion year history, but because Mercury has no wind, water or volcanic activity to erode the craters away, it’s far more cratered than the other planets. Looking at Mercury’s craters can tell us what our Earth used to be like.

Some scientists suggest Mercury may have been bombarded more than other planets, because there would have been more asteroids the closer you got to the Sun.

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NASA

Why no color?

All the other planets either have colored elements in their rocks – like Mars, which contains large amounts of iron – or they have an atmosphere – think of Jupiter and Saturn. This leaves Mercury looking much like our Moon.

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