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 A 100-year-old physics problem has been solved at EPFL
23.06.2017 | Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

nachricht Quantum thermometer or optical refrigerator?
23.06.2017 | National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

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: Can we see monkeys from space? Emerging technologies to map biodiversity

An international team of scientists has proposed a new multi-disciplinary approach in which an array of new technologies will allow us to map biodiversity and the risks that wildlife is facing at the scale of whole landscapes. The findings are published in Nature Ecology and Evolution. This international research is led by the Kunming Institute of Zoology from China, University of East Anglia, University of Leicester and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research.

Using a combination of satellite and ground data, the team proposes that it is now possible to map biodiversity with an accuracy that has not been previously...

Im Focus: Climate satellite: Tracking methane with robust laser technology

Heatwaves in the Arctic, longer periods of vegetation in Europe, severe floods in West Africa – starting in 2021, scientists want to explore the emissions of the greenhouse gas methane with the German-French satellite MERLIN. This is made possible by a new robust laser system of the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT in Aachen, which achieves unprecedented measurement accuracy.

Methane is primarily the result of the decomposition of organic matter. The gas has a 25 times greater warming potential than carbon dioxide, but is not as...

Im Focus: How protons move through a fuel cell

Hydrogen is regarded as the energy source of the future: It is produced with solar power and can be used to generate heat and electricity in fuel cells. Empa researchers have now succeeded in decoding the movement of hydrogen ions in crystals – a key step towards more efficient energy conversion in the hydrogen industry of tomorrow.

As charge carriers, electrons and ions play the leading role in electrochemical energy storage devices and converters such as batteries and fuel cells. Proton...

Im Focus: A unique data centre for cosmological simulations

Scientists from the Excellence Cluster Universe at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich have establised "Cosmowebportal", a unique data centre for cosmological simulations located at the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ) of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. The complete results of a series of large hydrodynamical cosmological simulations are available, with data volumes typically exceeding several hundred terabytes. Scientists worldwide can interactively explore these complex simulations via a web interface and directly access the results.

With current telescopes, scientists can observe our Universe’s galaxies and galaxy clusters and their distribution along an invisible cosmic web. From the...

Im Focus: Scientists develop molecular thermometer for contactless measurement using infrared light

Temperature measurements possible even on the smallest scale / Molecular ruby for use in material sciences, biology, and medicine

Chemists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) in cooperation with researchers of the German Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM)...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

Plants are networkers

19.06.2017 | Event News

Digital Survival Training for Executives

13.06.2017 | Event News

Global Learning Council Summit 2017

13.06.2017 | Event News

Latest News

Quantum thermometer or optical refrigerator?

23.06.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

A 100-year-old physics problem has been solved at EPFL

23.06.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

Equipping form with function

23.06.2017 | Information Technology

More VideoLinks >>>