New Mysteries Unveiled on Mercury

by Nancy Atkinson on April 30, 2009

The Rembrandt impact crater basin on Mercury.  Credit: Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Smithsonian Institution/Carnegie Institution of Washington

The Rembrandt impact crater basin on Mercury. Credit: Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Smithsonian Institution/Carnegie Institution of Washington


Even though Mercury looks like the Moon at first glance, scientists from the MESSENGER mission say it’s becoming apparent that Mercury is an amazingly dynamic planet, and is actually more like Mars. For example, before this mission, scientists weren’t sure if volcanism even existed on Mercury, but from the spacecraft’s two flybys, they now know it is a very important part of the planet’s history. Additional new findings from the second flyby of Mercury in October 2008 show that the planet’s atmosphere, magnetosphere, and geological past are all characterized by much greater levels of activity than scientists first suspected.

And by the way, isn’t this a stunning picture of an impact basin? It’s one of the new discoveries from MESSENGER.

One of the most exciting results from the second flyby of Mercury is the discovery of a previously unknown large impact basin. The Rembrandt basin is more than 700 kilometers (430 miles) in diameter, and actually, to see the entire basin, it took combined images from both the first and second flyby to create the stunning picture above. Rembrandt is a relatively young impact basin, and forming about 3.9 billion years ago, is younger than any other known impact region on the planet. It shows pristine terrain on the outer portion of the crater, as well as unusual tectonic fault features, not found in any other big crater.

“This is the first time we’ve seen terrain exposed on the floor of an impact basin on Mercury that is preserved from when it formed” says MESSENGER scientist Thomas Watters. “Landforms such as those revealed on the floor of Rembrandt are usually completely buried by volcanic flows. We know that after Rembrandt formed, the planet was still contracting, so it is an exciting and unique new member of planetary craters we can study.”

MESSENGER’s Mercury Atmospheric and Surface Composition Spectrometer, or MASCS, detected significant amounts of magnesium clumped in the planet’s tenuous atmosphere, called the exosphere. Scientists had suspected magnesium would be present, but were surprised at its distribution and abundance.

“Detecting magnesium was not too surprising, but what is surprising is the distribution and amounts of magnesium that was recorded,” said Bill McClintock, a MESSENGER co- investigator.
The instrument also measured other exospheric constituents during the October 6 flyby, including calcium and sodium, and he suspects that additional metallic elements from the surface including aluminum, iron, and silicon also contribute to the exosphere.

The differences in Mercury's magnetosphere in the two flybys by MESSENGER. Credit: Image produced by NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory//Carnegie Institution of Washington. Image reproduced courtesy of Science/AAAS.

The differences in Mercury's magnetosphere in the two flybys by MESSENGER. Credit: Image produced by NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory//Carnegie Institution of Washington. Image reproduced courtesy of Science/AAAS.


MESSENGER observed a radically different magnetosphere at Mercury during its second flyby, compared with its earlier January 14, 2008 encounter. In the first flyby, no dynamic features were found. But the second flyby was a totally different situation, said James Slavin, MESSENGER Co-Investigator.

“MESSENGER measured large magnetic flux leakage through the dayside magnetopause, about a factor of 10 greater than even what is observed at the Earth during its most active intervals. The high rate of solar wind energy input was evident in the great amplitude of the plasma waves and the large magnetic structures measured by the Magnetometer throughout the encounter.”

Slavin said Mercury’s magnetic field bears a marked resemblance to what we have at earth, but it is about 100 times weaker, which implies interior of Mercury is in part molten. “There is a dynamo action that is ongoing which regenerates and maintains the planetary magnetic field,” he said.

A subsurface interpretation of an impact basin on Mercury. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Arizona State University/Carnegie Institution of Washington.

A subsurface interpretation of an impact basin on Mercury. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Arizona State University/Carnegie Institution of Washington.


Scientists are also learning more abour Mercury’s crustal evolution, and have now mapped about 90% of the planet’s surface. About 40% is covered by smooth plains which are now known to be of volcanic origna. “These plains are globally distributed (in contrast with the Moon, which has a nearside/farside asymmetry in the abundance of volcanic plains),” said Brett Denevi, MESSENGER team member.

Data shows an enhanced iron- and titanium content in an ancient basin studied by MESSENGER, which are exposed on the surface only through impact events, and may formed when dense minerals settled out as they crystallized from a cooling magma. “There are a complex series of events going on here, but we see it everywhere, so this is a microcosm of the entire planet” said Denevi.

These discoveries are more clues to the mystery of the creation of the rocky, bizarre planet that resides closest to the sun.

Source: NASA Press conference, MESSNEGER press release

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.

Previous post:

Next post: