Robin Williams, while performing as the extraterrestrial being known as Mork from Ork on the ABC network sitcom "Mork and Mindy," once gave traveling advice: "Oh, don't ever go to Pluto. It's a Mickey Mouse planet." Turns out, Mork was wrong. It appears that the other end of the Solar System actually houses a Mickey Mouse planet -- the innermost rocky world of Mercury.
As it also turns out, it is a small world after all -- and it is branded with the image of Disney's most memorable animated character.
The planet Mercury is in the process of being extensively photographed by NASA's MESSENGER orbital spacecraft. Among its many geological features, the planet nearest the Sun also revealed a series of craters that resembled the popular mouse: One large round one (for the face) with a a couple smaller ones at the ten and two o'clock positions (for ears). The area is pocked with various craters but a few more even lend the appearance of eyes and a nose.
A Mickey Mouse planet indeed.
The odd resemblance the meteor crater array to Disney's most famous cartoon character is just the latest odd surface feature on a planet or planetoid that bears a striking similarity to something familiar. Just a couple months ago, NASA revealed a photo of a Mars lava flow from one of its many orbiters that looked very much like an elephant. And in August 2011, a set of three contiguous craters stacked in the shape of a snowman was discovered dotting the surface of the asteroid Vesta in the Main Asteroid Belt by the Dawn Spacecraft.
At the beginning of June, NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory took a photo that captured another famous children's character walking on the surface of the Sun: Big Bird from the PBS show "Sesame Street."
The mental phenomenon of ascribing a familiar pattern to an unfamiliar shape, set or display of images is known as pareidolia. It is a coping mechanism to help in mentally assimilating the strange, the alien, and the unknown. It is the basis of the imaginative children's game of giving name to the shapes of clouds, and it is employed by psychologists to help ascertain cognitive patterns associated with human behavior (Rorschach, or ink blot, tests). And it is responsible for millions seeing an ambulatory Big Bird hot-stepping across the Sun and the face of Mickey Mouse smiling from the crater-punched surface of the Solar System's hottest planet.
Mercury's Mickey Mouse pareidoliac image was discovered as a result of the MESSENGER mission's mapping of the tiny planet's surface. The mouse-like image was captured as a part of high-incidence-angle base mapping, a process that takes photos when the Sun is on the horizon, producing shadows cast from the surface's higher features. The shadows help accentuate the resemblance to the Disney character.
MESSENGER, which is the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury, has taken nearly 90,000 photos since beginning its mission above the small planet in March 2011. It will take approximately another 80,000 pictures in the next year to complete its scientific tasks.
(photo credit: NASA, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington