We live in an era of wonder, where people send robots to other worlds and view them close up. These machines get bathed in radiation, searing heat, bitter cold, suffocating vacuum, and they keep running. Moreover, they send their data back digitally, which can then be stored in a database and, if permissions are given, accessed by the public. And a subset of that public is educated in the ways of digital media, able to stitch together pictures, carefully aligning them, balancing them, coordinating borders and overlap regions. The result? This:
Yegads. That is Mercury as seen by the MESSENGER spacecraft in 2008, as it flew by the planet for the first time. It would do so again before finally entering orbit in March 2011. But as it left the smallest planet, it snapped a series of wide angle and high-resolution images. Gordon Ugarkovic is a Croatian software developer. He's also an amateur image processor... for a sufficiently wide definition of "amateur". He takes space images and works his prowess on them, creating dramatic and beautiful images like this one of Mercury. Click the picture to embiggen it, or you can also download a vast 5000 x 5000 pixel version that is, frankly, spectacular. Gordon used over 30 of the high-res frames from MESSENGER's Narrow Angle Camera to make this mosaic, and then used images from the Wide Angle Camera to balance the color. The 25 megapixel image is nothing short of amazing. Scrolling across it is like flying across the planet. I see features there I hadn't noticed before, like a pale dark streak just south of Mercury's equator, sharp cliffs called scarps that litter the surface, craters with bright rays of ejected material streaming out of them. It's breathtaking. Gordon has also done images of Saturn, Jupiter, and moons galore. You can follow his work at the Unmanned Spaceflight forum, or peruse his Flickr stream. But be warned: better have a lot of time handy. You'll be spending it there.
Image used with permission. Tip o' the heat shield to Dan Durda for tipping me off to the picture.