MESSENGER Spies a Meteor Shower… on Mercury

Leonid meteor storms. Taurid meteor swarms. Earth is no stranger to meteor showers, that’s for sure. Now, it turns out that the planet Mercury may experience periodic meteor showers as well.

The news of extraterrestrial meteor showers on Mercury came out of the annual Meeting of the Division of Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society currently underway this week in National Harbor, Maryland. The study was carried out by Rosemary Killen of NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, working with Matthew Burger of Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland and Apostolos Christou from the Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland.  The study looked at data from the MErcury Surface Space Environment Geochemistry and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft, which orbited Mercury until late April of this year. Astronomers published the results in the September 28th issue of Geophysical Research Letters.

Micrometeoroid debris litters the ecliptic plane, the result of millions of years of passages of comets through the inner solar system. You can see evidence of this in the band of the zodiacal light visible at dawn or dusk from a dark sky site, and the elusive counter-glow of the gegenschein.

The orbit of comet 2P Encke. Image credit: NASA/JPL
The orbit of comet 2P Encke. Image credit: NASA/JPL

Researchers have tagged meteoroid impacts as a previous source of the tenuous exosphere tails exhibited by otherwise airless worlds such as Mercury. The impacts kick up a detectable wind of calcium particles as Mercury plows through the zodiacal cloud of debris.

“We already knew that impacts were important in producing exospheres,” says Killen in a recent NASA Goddard press release. “What we did not know was the relative importance of comet streams over zodiacal dust.”

This calcium peak, however, posed a mystery to researchers. Namely, the peak was occurring just after perihelion—Mercury orbits the Sun once every 88 Earth days, and travels from 0.31 AU from the Sun at perihelion to 0.47 AU at aphelion—versus an expected calcium peak predicted by researchers just before perihelion.

Image credit:
STEREO A catches sight of comet 2P Encke. Image credit: NASA/STEREO

A key suspect in the calcium meteor spike dilemma came in the way of periodic Comet 2P Encke. Orbiting the Sun every 3.3 years—the shortest orbit of any known periodic comet—2P Encke has made many passages through the inner solar system, more than enough to lay down a dense and stable meteoroid debris stream over the millennia.

With an orbit ranging from a perihelion at 0.3 AU interior to Mercury’s to 4 AU, debris from Encke visits Earth as well in the form of the November Taurid Fireballs currently gracing the night skies of the Earth.

The Encke connection still presented a problem: the cometary stream is closest to the orbit of Mercury about a week later than the observed calcium peak. It was as if the stream had drifted over time…

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Comet 2P Encke, captured by NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins/APL/SW Research Institute

Enter the Poynting-Robertson effect. This is a drag created by solar radiation pressure over time. The push on cometary dust grains thanks to the Poynting-Robertson effect is tiny, but it does add up over time, modifying and moving meteor streams. We see this happening in our own local meteor stream environment, as once great showers such as the late 19th century Andromedids fade into obscurity. The gravitational influence of the planets also plays a role in the evolution of meteor shower streams as well.

Researchers in the study re-ran the model, using MESSENGER data and accounting for the Poynting-Robertson effect. They found the peak of the calcium emissions seen today are consistent with millimeter-sized grains ejected from Comet Encke about 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. That grain size and distribution is important, as bigger, more massive grains result in a smaller drag force.

Image credit: Kevin Palmer
A 2015 Taurid meteor. Image credit: Kevin Palmer

This finding shows the role and mechanism that cometary debris plays in exosphere production on worlds like Mercury.

“Finding that we can move the location of stream to match MESSENGER’s observations is gratifying, but the fact that the shift agrees with what we know about Encke and its stream from independent source makes us confident that the cause-and-effect relationship is real, says Christou in this week’s NASA Goddard press release.

Launched in 2004, MESSENGER arrived at Mercury in March 2011 and orbited the world for over four years, the first spacecraft to do so. MESSENGER mapped the entire surface of Mercury for the first time, and became the first human-made artifact to impact Mercury on April 30th, 2015.

The joint JAXA/ESA mission BepiColombo is the next Mercury mission in the pipeline, set to leave Earth on 2017 for insertion into orbit around Mercury on 2024.

An interesting find on the innermost world, and a fascinating connection between Earth and Mercury via comet 2P Encke and the Taurid Fireballs.

Aurora on Venus Versus Solar Activity

It’s a major mystery posed by our sister world.

Does the atmosphere of Venus possess upper atmospheric phenomena similar to the Earth, such as aurora or nightglow?

Now, a recent announcement out of the American Astronomical Society’s 46th annual meeting of the Division of Planetary Science being held this week in Tucson, Arizona has shed new light on the dilemma.

The discovery was announced on Wednesday, November 12th at the 46th AAS meeting and was made as a collaborative effort by researchers from New Mexico State University at Las Cruces, the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) International, the University of Colorado at Boulder, the University of Koln and University of Munich, Germany, the European Space and Technology Center in the Netherlands and the Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planétologie, in France.

For the study, researchers observed Venus from December 2010 to July 2012 using the Astrophysical Research Consortium (ARC)Echelle Spectrograph and the ARC  3.5 metre telescope located at Apache Point near Sunspot, New Mexico.

Timing was crucial, as the Sun was coming off of a profound deep minimum through 2009 and just beginning to become active with the start of solar cycle #24. Observers were looking for activity along the 5577.3 angstrom wavelength known as the “oxygen green line.” Activity had not been seen at this wavelength on the nighttime side of Venus since 2004.

The altitude drop in the Venusian atmosphere measured in the study. Credit : Credit: DPS press release/C. Gray/New Mexico State University.

“These are intriguing results, suggesting that it is possible to have aurora on non-magnetic planets,” said Candace Gray, Astronomer and NASA Earth and Space Science Fellow at Las Cruces and lead researcher in the study.  “On Venus, this green line has been seen only intermittently.”

Earth is the oddball among the terrestrial planets in the inner solar system with its robust magnetic field. On Earth, aurorae occur when said field captures charged particles ejected from the Sun and funnels them in towards the poles. Events seen in the study tended to drop 140 to 120 kilometres in altitude in the Venusian atmosphere, highly suggestive of auroral activity seen in the ionosphere of Earth.

Researchers were fortunate during one of the recent runs at Apache Point that the Sun kicked off a coronal mass ejection that headed Venus’s way. During the July 2012 solar storm, the team detected one of the brightest green line emissions that had ever been detected by observers on Earth.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons image.
The 3.5 metre telescope at Apache Point, in this case, being used for lunar ranging experiments. Credit: M3long/Wikimedia Commons image.

This demonstrates that perhaps, a magnetic field is optional when it comes to auroral activity, at least in the case of the planet Venus. Located only 0.7 astronomical units (108.5 million kilometres) from the Sun, our tempestuous star actually wraps the planet with its very own magnetotail.

Researchers are also looking to compare their results with observations from the European Space Agency’s Venus Express orbiter which arrived at the planet on April 2006.

“Currently, we are using observations from VIRTIS on Venus Express to try and detect the green line,” Gray told Universe Today. “We had coordinated ground based observations with them this past February, and we detected the green line from the ground when they were observing the night side limb. Additionally, we are using the Electron Spectrometer and ASPERA-4 to observe how the electron energy and density changes in the atmosphere after coronal mass ejection impacts.”

This also raises the interesting possibility that NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft — which recently arrived in orbit around Mars — might just detect similar activity in the tenuous Martian atmosphere as well. Like Venus, the Red Planet also lacks a global magnetic field.

Could this glow be connected with spurious sightings of the “Ashen Light of Venus” that have cropped up over the centuries?

Of course, ashen light, also known as Earthshine on the dark limb of the Moon, is easily explained as sunlight reflected back from the Earth. Moonless Venus, however, should be ashen light free.

“The green line emission that we see is brightest on the limb (edge) of the planet,” Gray told Universe Today. “We’re sure that there is emission all along the nightside, but because of the optical depth, it appears much brighter on the limb of the planet. I think it would be too faint to detect with the naked eye.”

Nightglow has been a leading suspect for ashen light on the Venusian nightside, and a similar green line emission detection rivaling the 2012 event was made by Tom Slanger using the Keck I telescope 1999.

Other proposed suspects over the centuries for ashen light on Venus include lightning, volcanism, light pollution (!) from Venusian cities, or just plain old observer error.

Certainly, future observations are needed to cinch the solar activity connection.

“We will likely observe Venus again from Apache Point the next time Venus is visible to us in June 2015,” Gray told Universe Today. “We will continue looking at Venus Express observations until the craft dies in the atmosphere.”

Venus turns its night time back towards us during the 2012 transit of the Sun, as seen from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (Credit: NASA/SDO).
Venus turns its night time back towards us during the 2012 transit of the Sun, as seen from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (Credit: NASA/SDO).

Venus can currently be seen crossing through the field of view of SOHO’s LASCO C3 camera. After spending most of 2014 in the dawn sky, Venus will emerge from behind the Sun low in the dusk to head towards greatest elongation in the evening sky on June 6th, 2015. And from there, Venus will once again slender towards a crescent, presenting its nightside towards Earth, and just perhaps, continuing to present a lingering mystery of modern astronomy.