Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Mercury not like other planets MESSENGER finds

Only six months into its Mercury orbit, the tiny MESSENGER spacecraft has shown scientists that Mercury doesn't conform to theory.

Its surface material composition differs in important ways from both those of the other terrestrial planets and expectations prior to the MESSENGER mission, calling into question current theories for Mercury's formation. Its magnetic field is unlike any other in the Solar System, and there are huge expanses of volcanic plains surrounding the north polar region of the planet and cover more than 6% of Mercury's surface. These findings and other surprises are revealed in seven papers in a special section of the September 30, 2011, issue of Science.

Surface Surprises

Two of the seven papers indicate that the surface material is more like that expected if Mercury formed from similar, but less oxidized, building blocks than those that formed its terrestrial cousins, perhaps reflecting a variable proportion of ice in the initial accretionary stages of the planets. Measurements of Mercury's surface by MESSENGER's X-Ray and Gamma-Ray Spectrometers also reveal substantially higher abundances of sulfur and potassium than previously predicted. Both elements vaporize at relatively low temperatures, and their abundances thus rule out several popular scenarios in which Mercury experienced extreme high-temperature events early in its history.

"Theorists need to go back to the drawing board on Mercury's formation," remarked the lead author of one of the papers, Carnegie's Larry Nittler. "Most previous ideas about Mercury's chemistry are inconsistent with what we have actually measured on the planet's surface."


For decades scientists had puzzled over whether Mercury had volcanic deposits on its surface. MESSENGER's three flybys answered that question in the affirmative, but the global distribution of volcanic materials was not well constrained. New data from orbit show a huge expanse of volcanic plains surrounding the north polar region of Mercury. These continuous smooth plains cover more than 6% of the total surface of Mercury.

Another lead author, James Head of Brown University, said that the deposits appear typical of flood lavas, like those found in the few-million-year-old Columbia River Basalt Group on Earth. "Those on Mercury appear to have poured out from long, linear vents and covered the surrounding areas, flooding them to great depths and burying their source vents,"

Scientists have also discovered vents, measuring up to 25 kilometers (km) (15.5 miles) in length, that appear to be the source of some of the tremendous volumes of very hot lava that have rushed out over the surface of Mercury and eroded the substrate, carving valleys and creating teardrop-shaped ridges in the underlying terrain.

New landforms

MESSENGER revealed an unexpected class of landform on Mercury and suggest that a previously unrecognized geological process is responsible for its formation. Images collected during the Mariner 10 and MESSENGER flybys of Mercury showed that the floors and central mountain peaks of some impact craters are very bright and have a blue color relative to other areas of Mercury. These deposits were considered to be unusual because no craters with similar characteristics are found on the Moon. But without higher-resolution images, the bright crater deposits remained a curiosity.

Now MESSENGER's orbital mission has provided close-up, targeted views of many of these craters. The bright areas are composed of small, shallow, irregularly shaped depressions that are often found in clusters said David T. Blewett, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) and lead author of one of the Science reports. "The science team adopted the term 'hollows' for these features to distinguish them from other types of pits that are found on Mercury."

Hollows have been found over a wide range of latitudes and longitudes, suggesting that they are fairly common across Mercury. Many of the depressions have bright interiors and halos, and Blewett says the ones detected so far have a fresh appearance and have not accumulated small impact craters, indicating that they are relatively young.

"Analysis of the images and estimates of the rate at which the hollows may be growing lead to the conclusion that they are actively forming today," Blewett says. "The old conventional wisdom was that 'Mercury is just like the Moon.' But from its vantage point in orbit, MESSENGER is showing us that Mercury is radically different from the Moon in just about every way we can measure."

Magnetic Field

Earth, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune all have intrinsic magnetic fields, but MESSENGER found that Mercury's weak field is different. So too are particle acceleration processes in Mercury's magnetosphere, as described in a paper by lead author George Ho of APL. MESSENGER's observations of energetic electrons indicated that their distribution is not consistent with what are known as Van Allen radiation belts. These belts are bands of charged particles that interact with the magnetic field and surround the planets.

Mercury's magnetic equator is also well to the north of the planet's geographic equator. The best-fitting internal dipole magnetic field is located about 480 km (298 miles), northward of the planet's center.

The team found that sodium is the most important plasma ion contributed by the planet to the magnetosphere. "We had previously observed neutral sodium from ground observations, but up close we've discovered that charged sodium particles are concentrated near Mercury's polar regions where they are likely liberated by solar wind ion sputtering, effectively knocking sodium atoms off Mercury's surface" notes the University of Michigan's Thomas Zurbuchen, author of one of the Science reports. "We were able to observe the formation process of these ions, one that is comparable to the manner by which auroras are generated in the Earth atmosphere near polar regions."

MESSENGER's Fast Imaging Plasma Spectrometer detected helium ions throughout the entire volume of Mercury's magnetosphere. "Helium must be generated through surface interactions with the solar wind," says Zurbuchen. "We surmise that the helium was delivered from the Sun by the solar wind, implanted on the surface of Mercury, and then fanned out in all directions."

"Our results tell us is that Mercury's weak magnetosphere provides very little protection of the planet from the solar wind," he continued. "Extreme space weather must be a continuing activity at the surface of the planet closest to the Sun."

"In the history of exploration of our planetary system, the first spacecraft to orbit a planet has always yielded stunning surprises, and MESSENGER has been true to that pattern," notes Carnegie's Sean Solomon, MESSENGER Principal Investigator. "Our first good views of the polar regions, our first high-resolution images, our first continuous observations of the exosphere and magnetosphere, and our first opportunity to collect time-consuming measurements of surface composition have all returned unexpected results. Mercury is not the planet described in the textbooks. Although a true sibling of Venus, Mars, and Earth, the innermost planet has had a much more exciting life than anyone predicted."

MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) is a NASA-sponsored scientific investigation of the planet Mercury and the first space mission designed to orbit the planet closest to the Sun. The MESSENGER spacecraft launched on August 3, 2004, and entered orbit about Mercury on March 18, 2011, to begin a one-year study of its target planet. Dr. Sean C. Solomon, of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, leads the mission as Principal Investigator. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory built and operates the MESSENGER spacecraft and manages this Discovery-class mission for NASA.

The Carnegie Institution for Science ( is a private, nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., with six research departments throughout the U.S. Since its founding in 1902, the Carnegie Institution has been a pioneering force in basic scientific research. Carnegie scientists are leaders in plant biology, developmental biology, astronomy, materials science, global ecology, and Earth and planetary science.

Sean Solomon | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Gamma rays will reach beyond the limits of light
23.10.2017 | Chalmers University of Technology

nachricht Creation of coherent states in molecules by incoherent electrons
23.10.2017 | Tata Institute of Fundamental Research

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Salmonella as a tumour medication

HZI researchers developed a bacterial strain that can be used in cancer therapy

Salmonellae are dangerous pathogens that enter the body via contaminated food and can cause severe infections. But these bacteria are also known to target...

Im Focus: Neutron star merger directly observed for the first time

University of Maryland researchers contribute to historic detection of gravitational waves and light created by event

On August 17, 2017, at 12:41:04 UTC, scientists made the first direct observation of a merger between two neutron stars--the dense, collapsed cores that remain...

Im Focus: Breaking: the first light from two neutron stars merging

Seven new papers describe the first-ever detection of light from a gravitational wave source. The event, caused by two neutron stars colliding and merging together, was dubbed GW170817 because it sent ripples through space-time that reached Earth on 2017 August 17. Around the world, hundreds of excited astronomers mobilized quickly and were able to observe the event using numerous telescopes, providing a wealth of new data.

Previous detections of gravitational waves have all involved the merger of two black holes, a feat that won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics earlier this month....

Im Focus: Smart sensors for efficient processes

Material defects in end products can quickly result in failures in many areas of industry, and have a massive impact on the safe use of their products. This is why, in the field of quality assurance, intelligent, nondestructive sensor systems play a key role. They allow testing components and parts in a rapid and cost-efficient manner without destroying the actual product or changing its surface. Experts from the Fraunhofer IZFP in Saarbrücken will be presenting two exhibits at the Blechexpo in Stuttgart from 7–10 November 2017 that allow fast, reliable, and automated characterization of materials and detection of defects (Hall 5, Booth 5306).

When quality testing uses time-consuming destructive test methods, it can result in enormous costs due to damaging or destroying the products. And given that...

Im Focus: Cold molecules on collision course

Using a new cooling technique MPQ scientists succeed at observing collisions in a dense beam of cold and slow dipolar molecules.

How do chemical reactions proceed at extremely low temperatures? The answer requires the investigation of molecular samples that are cold, dense, and slow at...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

3rd Symposium on Driving Simulation

23.10.2017 | Event News

ASEAN Member States discuss the future role of renewable energy

17.10.2017 | Event News

World Health Summit 2017: International experts set the course for the future of Global Health

10.10.2017 | Event News

Latest News

Shrews shrink in winter and regrow in spring

24.10.2017 | Life Sciences

Microfluidics probe 'cholesterol' of the oil industry

23.10.2017 | Life Sciences

Gamma rays will reach beyond the limits of light

23.10.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

More VideoLinks >>>