Since 2011, NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft has been orbiting the planet Mercury. It has collected thousands of images of the surface, enough to create a high-resolution map of the entire planet.
Just like we name mountains, plains, oceans, and craters on Earth, scientists name geological features on other celestial bodies as well. Colloquial names make it easier to refer to certain features when doing research. For example, MESSENGER has confirmed that there are in fact deposits of frozen water (ice) at Mercury's poles that never melt because they are shaded from the sun by the craters they are in. Studying these craters would be made easier if they had names, so scientists could quickly refer to these features while studying them.
Craters on other planets and celestial bodies are often of interest to scientists because an impact big enough to leave a crater can reveal rocks and other material from under the planet's surface that were previously hidden. Gathering new information about a planet's geological composition can help scientists understand the planet's interior structure. It's been found that Mercury, for example, generates a magnetic field similar to Earth's and has experienced periods of intense volcanic activity.
Now, scientists at NASA and their collaborators are offering you the chance to name several craters on Mercury! These five craters of scientific interest need naming. The International Astronomical Union (IAU), which is in charge of naming other celestial bodies and their features, stipulates that features on Mercury be named for individuals who have made contributions to the arts and humanities. Do you have a favorite historical artist you'd like to name a crater after? Enter the crater-naming competition here! The contest is open until January 15, 2015.
ORIGINALLY POSTED ON AAAS SCIENCE NETLINKS.