New evidence gathered by NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft at Mercury indicates the planet closest to the sun has shrunk up to 7 kilometers in radius over the past 4 billion years, much more than earlier estimates.
The new finding, published in the journal Nature Geoscience Sunday, March 16, solves an apparent enigma about Mercury's evolution.
Older images of surface features indicated that, despite cooling over its lifetime, the rocky planet had barely shrunk at all. But modeling of the planet's formation and aging could not explain that finding.
Now, Paul K. Byrne and Christian Klimczak at the Carnegie Institution of Washington have led a team that used MESSENGER's detailed images and topographic data to build a comprehensive map of tectonic features. That map suggests Mercury shrunk substantially as it cooled, as rock and metal that comprise its interior are expected to.
"With MESSENGER, we have now obtained images of the entire planet at high resolution and, crucially, at different angles to the sun that show features Mariner 10 could not in the 1970s," said Steven A. Hauck, II, a professor of planetary sciences at Case Western Reserve University and the paper's co-author.
Mariner 10, the first spacecraft sent to explore Mercury, gathered images and data over just 45% of the surface during three flybys in 1974 and 1975. MESSENGER, which launched in 2004 and was inserted into orbit in 2011, continues collecting scientific data, completing its 2,900th orbit of Mercury later this month.
Mercury's surface differs from Earth's in that its outer shell, called the lithosphere, is made up of one tectonic plate instead of multiple plates.
To help gauge how the planet may have shrunk, the researchers looked at tectonic features, called lobate scarps and wrinkle ridges, which result from interior cooling and surface compression. The features resemble long ribbons from above, ranging from 5 to more than 550 miles long.
Lobate scarps are cliffs caused by thrust faults that have broken the surface and reach up to nearly 2 miles high. Wrinkle ridges are caused by faults that don't extend as deep and tend to have lower relief. Surface materials from one side of the fault ramp up and fold over, forming a ridge. The scientists mapped a total of 5,934 of the tectonic features.
The scarps and ridges have much the same effect as a tailor making a series of tucks to take in the waist of a pair of pants.
With the new data, the researchers were able to see a greater number of these faults and estimate the shortening across broad sections of the surface and thus estimate the decrease in the planet's radius.
They estimate the planet has contracted between 4.6 and 7 kilometers in radius.
"This is significantly greater than the 1 to maybe 2 kilometers reported earlier on the basis of Mariner 10 data," Hauck said.
And, importantly, he said, models built on the main heat-producing elements in planetary interiors, as detected by MESSENGER, support contraction in the range now documented.
One striking aspect of the form and distribution of surface tectonic features on Mercury is that they are largely consistent with some early explanations about the features of Earth's surface, before the theory of plate tectonics made them obsolete—at least for Earth, Hauck said.
So far, Earth is the only planet known to have tectonic plates instead of a single, outer shell.
The findings, therefore, can provide limits and a framework to understand how planets cool—their thermal, tectonic and volcanic history. So, by looking at Mercury, scientists learn not just about planets in our solar system, but about the increasing number of rocky planets being found around other stars.
Kevin Mayhood | EurekAlert!
For a rare prairie orchid, science is making climate change local
12.02.2016 | USDA Forest Service - Northern Research Station
NASA sees Tropical Cyclone Winston form
12.02.2016 | NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
Today, plants and microorganisms are heavily used for the production of medicinal products. The production of biopharmaceuticals in plants, also referred to as “Molecular Pharming”, represents a continuously growing field of plant biotechnology. Preferred host organisms include yeast and crop plants, such as maize and potato – plants with high demands. With the help of a special algal strain, the research team of Prof. Ralph Bock at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology in Potsdam strives to develop a more efficient and resource-saving system for the production of medicines and vaccines. They tested its practicality by synthesizing a component of a potential AIDS vaccine.
The use of plants and microorganisms to produce pharmaceuticals is nothing new. In 1982, bacteria were genetically modified to produce human insulin, a drug...
Atomic clock experts from the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB) are the first research group in the world to have built an optical single-ion clock which attains an accuracy which had only been predicted theoretically so far. Their optical ytterbium clock achieved a relative systematic measurement uncertainty of 3 E-18. The results have been published in the current issue of the scientific journal "Physical Review Letters".
Atomic clock experts from the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB) are the first research group in the world to have built an optical single-ion clock...
The University of Würzburg has two new space projects in the pipeline which are concerned with the observation of planets and autonomous fault correction aboard satellites. The German Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy funds the projects with around 1.6 million euros.
Detecting tornadoes that sweep across Mars. Discovering meteors that fall to Earth. Investigating strange lightning that flashes from Earth's atmosphere into...
Physicists from Saarland University and the ESPCI in Paris have shown how liquids on solid surfaces can be made to slide over the surface a bit like a bobsleigh on ice. The key is to apply a coating at the boundary between the liquid and the surface that induces the liquid to slip. This results in an increase in the average flow velocity of the liquid and its throughput. This was demonstrated by studying the behaviour of droplets on surfaces with different coatings as they evolved into the equilibrium state. The results could prove useful in optimizing industrial processes, such as the extrusion of plastics.
The study has been published in the respected academic journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America).
Exceeding critical temperature limits in the Southern Ocean may cause the collapse of ice sheets and a sharp rise in sea levels
A future warming of the Southern Ocean caused by rising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere may severely disrupt the stability of the West...
12.02.2016 | Event News
09.02.2016 | Event News
02.02.2016 | Event News
12.02.2016 | Physics and Astronomy
12.02.2016 | Life Sciences
12.02.2016 | Medical Engineering