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Snow on Mercury?


No, not that kind of snow, but scientists say deep inside the planet Mercury, iron “snow” forms and falls toward the center of the planet, much like snowflakes form in Earth’s atmosphere and fall to the ground. The movement of this iron snow could be responsible for Mercury’s mysterious magnetic field, and Mercury may be the only body in our solar system where this occurs.

Mercury and Earth are the only local terrestrial planets that possess a global magnetic field. But Mercury’s is about 100 times weaker than Earth’s, which scientists have been unable to explain.

Made mostly of iron, Mercury’s core is also thought to contain sulfur, which lowers the melting point of iron and plays an important role in producing the planet’s magnetic field.

To better understand the physical state of Mercury’s core, the researchers in a lab recreated the conditions believed to exist at Mercury’s core, and melted an iron-sulfur mixture at high pressures and high temperatures.

In each experiment, an iron-sulfur sample was compressed to a specific pressure and heated to a specific temperature. The sample was then quenched, cut in two, and analyzed with a scanning electron microscope and an electron probe microanalyzer.

As the molten, iron-sulfur mixture in the outer core slowly cools, iron atoms condense into cubic “flakes” that fall toward the planet’s center, said Bin Chen, University of Illinois graduate student and lead author of a paper published in the April issue of Geophysical Research Letters. As the iron snow sinks and the lighter, sulfur-rich liquid rises, convection currents are created that power the dynamo and produce the planet’s weak magnetic field.

The researchers say their findings provide a new context for the data that will be obtained from NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft, which will flyby Mercury for a second time on October 6, 2008. It will pass by the planet again in September of 2009, and go into orbit in March of 2011.

Original News Source: Eureka Alert

Here are some interesting facts about Mercury.

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • alphonso richardson May 9, 2008, 4:24 AM

    Wow, that must have been quite an acheivement in the lab. if they find out this is the case on Mercury, THAT would be awesome!!

  • The Colonel May 9, 2008, 8:09 AM

    That’s my secret recipe. Marinate the chicken in sulfur and then boil it in petroleum.

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