The Unspeakable Horror of Mercury’s South Pole, or Astronomy for Lovecraftians

The unknowable!
Photo courtesy of NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

By Sara Knight
BU News Service

This past year NASA sent a spacecraft about the size of a standard office desk (4.5’ x 6’ x 4’) equipped with eight observational instruments into Mercury’s orbit. The spacecraft, dubbed MESSENGER, was tasked with reporting back information about that rocky little planet’s geology, magnetosphere, polar deposits, and exosphere.

The MESSENGER team succeeded – it found evidence of past massive volcanic activity, measured Mercury’s core for the first time (it takes up 85% of the planet’s radius), and even found indications that Mercury’s core may be partially liquid.

This is all good news for astronomers and the occasional Mercury aficionado (they must be out there) but why would a Lovecraftian care? Well, the MESSENGER mission also led to the team naming nine previously unglimpsed craters on Mercury’s South Pole. And as directed by the International Astronomical Union’s naming conventions, the craters’ titles honored deceased artists, musicians, painters, and authors.

Image from Wikimedia Commons
American horror author H. P. Lovecraft.

Rachel Klima, a planetary geologist on the MESSENGER team and a woman of impeccable literary taste, was particularly inspired by one of these craters, which due to its depth and position is cast eternally in shadow – creating a deep, frigid hole of unknowable features. She christened the crater “Lovecraft,” after H. P. Lovecraft, literary father of modern horror and namer of incomprehensible eldritch and celestial terrors.

Ok, so we didn’t actually find any unspeakable, unutterable terrors lurking on Mercury’s South Pole. But, who is to say if MESSENGER had audio capabilities it would not pick up on any “maddening beating of vile drums” or “thin, monotonous whine of accursed flutes” coming from with the shrouded depths of the Lovecraft crater? Or perhaps we may have even found the site where “boundless daemon-sultan Azathoth” who “gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time” sits upon his black throne, the sight of which would most certainly drive us insane.

For now all we can see in the Lovecraft crater is darkness. But who can say what is looking back?