Do you wonder how astronomers find all those exoplanets orbiting stars in distant solar systems?
Mostly they use the transit method. When a planet travels in between its star and an observer, the light from the star dims. That’s called a transit. If astronomers watch a planet transit its star a few times, they can confirm its orbital period. They can also start to understand other things about the planet, like its mass and density.
The planet Mercury just transited the Sun, giving us all an up close look at transits.
Earth’s magnetic poles drift over time. This is something that every airplane pilot or navigator knows. They have to account for it when they plan their flights.
They drift so much, in fact, that the magnetic poles are in different locations than the geographic poles, or the axis of Earth’s rotation. Today, Earth’s magnetic north pole is 965 kilometres (600 mi) away from its geographic pole. Now a new study says the same pole drifting is occurring on Mercury too.
In addition to being the only solvent that is capable of supporting life, water is essential to life as we know it here on Earth. Because of this, finding deposits of water – whether in liquid form or as ice – on other planets is always exciting. Even where is not seen as a potential indication of life, the presence of water offers opportunities for exploration, scientific study, and even the creation of human outposts.
This has certainly been the case as far as the Moon and Mercury are concerned, where water ice was discovered in the permanently-shadowed cratered regions around the poles. But according to a new analysis of the data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the MESSENGER spacecraft, the Moon and Mercury may have significantly more water ice than previously thought.
A handful of spacecraft have used ion engines to reach their destinations, but none have been as powerful as the engines on the BepiColombo spacecraft. BepiColombo is a joint mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA.) It was launched on October 20, 2018, and has gone through weeks of in-flight commissioning. On Sunday it turned on its powerful ion thrusters for the first time.
“We put our trust in the thrusters and they have not let us down.” – Günther Hasinger, ESA Director of Science.
Hello all. I hope our readers don’t mind that I’m taking a bit of a diversion here today to engage in a little shameless self-promotion. Basically, I wanted to talk about my recently-published novel – The Jovian Manifesto. This book is the sequel to The Cronian Incident, which was published last year (and was a little shamelessly promoted at the time).
However, I also wanted to take this opportunity to talk about hard science fiction and how writing for a science publication helped me grow as a writer. By definition, hard sci-fi refers to stories where scientific accuracy is emphasized. This essentially means that the technology in the story conforms to established science and/or what is believed to be feasible in the future.
In the course of searching for planets beyond our Solar System – aka. extra-solar planets – some truly interesting cases have been discovered. In addition to planets that are several times the size of the Solar System’s largest planet (Super-Jupiters), astronomers have also found a plethora of terrestrial (i.e rocky) planets that are several times the size of Earth (Super-Earths).
This is certainly true of K2-229b, a rocky planet that was recently discovered by an international team of astronomers. Located 339 light years away, this hot, metallic planet is an exercise in extremes. Not only is it 20% larger than Earth, it is 2.6 times Earth mass and has a composition similar to Mercury. On top of that, its orbits its star so closely that it is several times hotter than Mercury.
Using data from the Kepler space telescopes K2 mission, the team was able to identify K2-229b, a Super-Earth that orbits a medium-sized K dwarf (orange dwarf) star in the Virgo Constellation. Using the Radial Velocity Method – aka. Doppler Spectroscopy – the team was able to determine the planet’s size and mass, which indicated that it is similar in composition to Mercury – i.e. metallic and rocky.
They were also able to determine that it orbits its star at a distance of 0.012 AU with an orbital period of just 14 days. At this distance, K2-229b is roughly one one-hundredth as far from its star as the Earth is from the Sun and experiences surface temperature that are several times higher than those on Mercury – reaching a day side temperature 2000 °C (3632 °F), or hot enough to melt iron and silicon.
As Dr. David Armstrong, a researcher from the University of Warwick and a co-author on the study, explained:
“Mercury stands out from the other Solar System terrestrial planets, showing a very high fraction of iron and implying it formed in a different way. We were surprised to see an exoplanet with the same high density, showing that Mercury-like planets are perhaps not as rare as we thought. Interestingly K2-229b is also the innermost planet in a system of at least 3 planets, though all three orbit much closer to their star than Mercury. More discoveries like this will help us shed light on the formation of these unusual planets, as well as Mercury itself.”
Given its dense, metallic nature, it is something of a mystery of how this planet formed. One theory is that the planet’s atmosphere could have been eroded by intense stellar wind and flares, given that the planet is so close to its star. Another possibility is that it was formed from a huge impact between two giant bodies billions of years ago – similar to the theory of how the Moon formed after Earth collided with a Mars-sized body (named Theia).
As with many recent discoveries, this latest exoplanet is giving astronomers the opportunity to see just what is possible. By studying how them, we are able to learn more about how the Solar System formed and evolved. Given the similarities between K2-229b and Mercury, the study of this exoplanet could teach us much about how Mercury became a dense, metallic planet that orbits closely to our Sun.
Back in 2012, scientists were delighted to discover that within the polar regions of Mercury, vast amounts of water ice were detected. While the existence of water ice in this permanently-shaded region had been the subject of speculation for about 20 years, it was only after the Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft studied the polar region that this was confirmed.
Based on the MESSENGER data, it was estimated that Mercury could have between 100 billion to 1 trillion tons of water ice at both poles, and that the ice could be up to 20 meters (65.5 ft) deep in places. However, a new study by a team of researchers from Brown University indicates that there could be three additional large craters and many more smaller ones in the northern polar region that also contain ice.
Despite being the closest planet to the Sun, and experiencing scorching surface temperatures on its Sun-facing side, Mercury’s low axial tilt means that its polar regions are permanently shaded and experience average temperatures of about 200 K (-73 °C; -100 °F). The idea that ice might exist in these regions dates back to the 1990s, when Earth-based radar telescopes detected highly reflective spots within the polar craters.
This was confirmed when the MESSENGER spacecraft detected neutron signals from the planet’s north pole that were consistent with water ice. Since that time, it has been the general consensus that Mercury’s surface ice was confined to seven large craters. But as Ariel Deutsch explained in a Brown University press statement, she and her team sought to look beyond them:
“The assumption has been that surface ice on Mercury exists predominantly in large craters, but we show evidence for these smaller-scale deposits as well. Adding these small-scale deposits to the large deposits within craters adds significantly to the surface ice inventory on Mercury.”
Together, they examined data from MESSENGER’s Mercury Laser Altimeter (MLA) instrument. This instrument was used by MESSENGER to measure the distance between the spacecraft and Mercury, the resulting data being then used to create detailed topographical maps of the planet’s surface. But in this case, the MLA was used to measure surface reflectance, which indicated the presence of ice.
As an instrument specialist with the MESSENGER mission, Neumann was responsible for calibrating the altimeter’s reflectance signal. These signals can vary based on whether the measurements are taken from overhead or at an angle (the latter of which is refereed to as “off-nadir” readings). Thanks to Neumann’s adjustments, researchers were able to detect high-reflectance deposits in three more large craters that were consistent with water ice.
According to their estimates, these three craters could contain ice sheets that measure about 3,400 square kilometers (1313 mi²). In addition, the team also looked at the terrain surrounding these three large craters. While these areas were not as reflective as the ice sheets inside the craters, they were brighter than the Mercury’s average surface reflectance.
Beyond this, they also looked at altimeter data to seek out evidence of smaller scale deposits. What they found was four smaller craters, each with diameters of less than 5 km (3 mi), which were also more reflective than the surface. From this, they deduced that there were not only more large deposits of ice that were previously undiscovered, but likely many smaller “cold traps” where ice could exist as well.
Between these three newly-discovered large deposits, and what could be hundreds of smaller deposits, the total volume of ice on Mercury could be considerably more than we previously thought. As Deutsch said:
“We suggest that this enhanced reflectance signature is driven by small-scale patches of ice that are spread throughout this terrain. Most of these patches are too small to resolve individually with the altimeter instrument, but collectively they contribute to the overall enhanced reflectance… These four were just the ones we could resolve with the MESSENGER instruments. We think there are probably many, many more of these, ranging in sizes from a kilometer down to a few centimeters.”
In the past, studies of the lunar surface also confirmed the presence of water ice in its cratered polar regions. Further research indicated that outside of the larger craters, small “cold traps”could also contain ice. According to some models, accounting for these smaller deposits could effectively double estimates on the total amounts of ice on the Moon. Much the same could be true for Mercury.
But as Jim Head (who also served as Deutsch Ph.D. advisor for this study) indicated, this work also adds a new take to the critical question of where water in the Solar System came from. “One of the major things we want to understand is how water and other volatiles are distributed through the inner Solar System—including Earth, the Moon and our planetary neighbors,” he said. “This study opens our eyes to new places to look for evidence of water, and suggests there’s a whole lot more of it on Mercury than we thought.”
In addition to indicating the Solar System may be more watery than previously suspected, the presence of abundant ice on Mercury and the Moon has bolstered proposals for building outposts on these bodies. These outposts could be capable of turning local deposits water ice into hydrazine fuel, which would drastically reduce the costs of mounting long-range missions throughout the Solar System.
On the less-speculative side of things, this study also offers new insights into how the Solar System formed and evolved. If water is far more plentiful today than we knew, it would indicate that more was present during the early epochs of planetary formation, presumably when it was being distributed throughout the Solar System by asteroids and comets.
With the dawning of the Space Age in the 1950s, human beings were no longer confined to studying the Solar planets and other astronomical bodies with Earth-based instruments alone. Instead crewed missions have gone into orbit and to the Moon while robotic missions have traveled to every corner of the Solar System. And in the process, we have learned some interesting things about the planets, planetoids, and asteroids in our Solar neighborhood.
For example, we have learned that all the Solar planets have their own particular patterns and cycles. For instance, even though Mercury is an airless body, it does have a tenuous exosphere and experiences seasons of a sort. And while it is known for being extremely hot, it also experiences extremes of cold, to the point that ice can exist on its surface. While it is by no means what we are used to here on Earth, Mercury still experiences a kind of “weather”.
As noted, Mercury has no atmosphere to speak of, owing to its small size and extremes in temperature. However, it does have a tenuous and variable exosphere that is made up of hydrogen, helium, oxygen, sodium, calcium, potassium and water vapor, with a combined pressure level of about 10-14 bar (one-quadrillionth of Earth’s atmospheric pressure).
It is believed this exosphere was formed from particles captured from the Sun (i.e solar wind) as well as volcanic outgassing and debris kicked into orbit by micrometeorite impacts. In any case, Mercury’s lack of a viable atmosphere is the reason why it is unable to retain heat from the Sun, which leads to extreme variations between night and day for the rocky planet.
Mercury’s temperature variations are also attributed to its orbital eccentricity of 0.2056, which is the most extreme of any planet in the Solar System. Essentially, its distance from the Sun ranges from 46 million km (29 million mi) at its closest (perihelion) to 70 million km (43 million mi) at its farthest (aphelion). As a result, the side facing the Sun reaches temperatures of up to 700 K (427° C), the side in shadow dips down to 100 K (-173° C).
With an average rotational speed of 10.892 km/h (6.768 mph), Mercury also takes 58.646 days to complete a single rotation. This means that Mercury has a spin-orbit resonance of 3:2, where it completes three rotations on its axis for every two rotations completed around the Sun. This does not, however, mean that three days last the same as two years on Mercury.
In fact, its high eccentricity and slow rotation mean that it takes 176 Earth days for the Sun to return to the same place in the sky (aka. a solar day). In short, a single day on Mercury is twice as long as a single year! Mercury also has the lowest axial tilt of any planet in the Solar System – approximately 0.027 degrees compared to Jupiter’s 3.1 degrees (the second smallest).
This low tilt means that the polar regions are constantly in shadow, which leads to another interesting feature about Mercury. Yes, despite how hot its Sun-facing side can become, the existence of water ice and even organic molecules have been confirmed on Mercury’s surface. But this only true at the poles, where the floors of deep craters are never exposed to direct sunlight, and temperatures within them therefore remain below the planetary average.
These icy regions are believed to contain about 1014–1015 kg (1 to 10 billion metric tons, 1.1 to 11 billion US tons) of frozen water, and may be covered by a layer of regolith that inhibits sublimation. The origin of the ice on Mercury is not yet known, but the two most likely sources are from outgassing of water from the planet’s interior or deposition by the impacts of comets.
When one talks about the “weather” on Mercury, they are generally confined to talking about variations between the Sun-facing side and the night side. Over the course of two years, that weather will remain scorching hot or freezing cold. In that respect, we could say that a single season on Mercury lasts a full four years, and includes a “Midnight Sun” that lasts two years, and a “Polar Night” that lasts the same.
Between its rapid and very eccentric orbit, its slow rotation, and its strange diurnal and annual patterns, Mercury is a very extreme planet with a very extreme environment. It only makes sense that its weather would be similarly extreme. Hey, there’s a reason nobody lives there, at least not yet…
Mercury was appropriately named after the Roman messenger of the Gods. This is owed to the fact that its apparent motion in the night sky was faster than that of any of the other planets. As astronomers learned more about this “messenger planet”, they came to understand that its motion was due to its close orbit to the Sun, which causes it to complete a single orbit every 88 days.
Mercury’s proximity to the Sun is merely one of its defining characteristics. Compared to the other planets of the Solar System, it experiences severe temperature variations, going from very hot to very cold. It’s also very rocky, and has no atmosphere to speak of. But to truly get a sense of how Mercury stacks up compared to the other planets of the Solar System, we need to a look at how Mercury compares to Earth.
Size, Mass and Orbit:
The diameter of Mercury is 4,879 km, which is approximately 38% the diameter of Earth. In other words, if you put three Mercurys side by side, they would be a little larger than the Earth from end to end. While this makes Mercury smaller than the largest natural satellites in our system – such as Ganymede and Titan – it is more massive and far more dense than they are.
In fact, Mercury’s mass is approximately 3.3 x 1023 kg (5.5% the mass of Earth) which means that its density – at 5.427 g/cm3 – is the second highest of any planet in the Solar System, only slightly less than Earth’s (5.515 g/cm3). This also means that Mercury’s surface gravity is 3.7 m/s2, which is the equivalent of 38% of Earth’s gravity (0.38 g). This means that if you weighed 100 kg (220 lbs) on Earth, you would weigh 38 kg (84 lbs) on Mercury.
Meanwhile, the surface area of Mercury is 75 million square kilometers, which is approximately 10% the surface area of Earth. If you could unwrap Mercury, it would be almost twice the area of Asia (44 million square km). And the volume of Mercury is 6.1 x 1010 km3, which works out to 5.4% the volume of Earth. In other words, you could fit Mercury inside Earth 18 times over and still have a bit of room to spare.
In terms of orbit, Mercury and Earth probably could not be more different. For one, Mercury has the most eccentric orbit of any planet in the Solar System (0.205), compared to Earth’s 0.0167. Because of this, its distance from the Sun varies between 46 million km (29 million mi) at its closest (perihelion) to 70 million km (43 million mi) at its farthest (aphelion).
This puts Mercury much closer to the Sun than Earth, which orbits at an average distance of 149,598,023 km (92,955,902 mi), or 1 AU. This distance ranges from 147,095,000 km (91,401,000 mi) to 152,100,000 km (94,500,000 mi) – 0.98 to 1.017 AU. And with an average orbital velocity of 47.362 km/s (29.429 mi/s), it takes Mercury a total 87.969 Earth days to complete a single orbit – compared to Earth’s 365.25 days.
However, since Mercury also takes 58.646 days to complete a single rotation, it takes 176 Earth days for the Sun to return to the same place in the sky (aka. a solar day). So on Mercury, a single day is twice as long as a single year. Meanwhile on Earth, a single solar day is 24 hours long, owing to its rapid rotation of 1674.4 km/h. Mercury also has the lowest axial tilt of any planet in the Solar System – approximately 0.027°, compared to Earth’s 23.439°.
Structure and Composition:
Much like Earth, Mercury is a terrestrial planet, which means it is composed of silicate minerals and metals that are differentiated between a solid metal core and a silicate crust and mantle. For Mercury, the breakdown of these elements is higher than Earth. Whereas Earth is primarily composed of silicate minerals, Mercury is composed of 70% metallic and 30% of silicate materials.
Also like Earth, Mercury’s interior is believed to be composed of a molten iron that is surrounded by a mantle of silicate material. Mercury’s core, mantle and crust measure 1,800 km, 600 km, and 100-300 km thick, respectively; while Earth’s core, mantle and crust measure 3478 km, 2800 km, and up to 100 km thick, respectively.
What’s more, geologists estimate that Mercury’s core occupies about 42% of its volume (compared to Earth’s 17%) and the core has a higher iron content than that of any other major planet in the Solar System. Several theories have been proposed to explain this, the most widely accepted being that Mercury was once a larger planet that was struck by a planetesimal that stripped away much of the original crust and mantle.
In terms of its surface, Mercury is much more like the Moon than Earth. It has a dry landscape pockmarked by asteroid impact craters and ancient lava flows. Combined with extensive plains, these indicate that the planet has been geologically inactive for billions of years.
Names for these features come from a variety of sources. Craters are named for artists, musicians, painters, and authors; ridges are named for scientists; depressions are named after works of architecture; mountains are named for the word “hot” in different languages; planes are named for Mercury in various languages; escarpments are named for ships of scientific expeditions, and valleys are named after radio telescope facilities.
During and following its formation 4.6 billion years ago, Mercury was heavily bombarded by comets and asteroids, and perhaps again during the Late Heavy Bombardment period. Due to its lack of an atmosphere and precipitation, these craters remain intact billions of years later. Craters on Mercury range in diameter from small bowl-shaped cavities to multi-ringed impact basins hundreds of kilometers across.
The largest known crater is Caloris Basin, which measures 1,550 km (963 mi) in diameter. The impact that created it was so powerful that it caused lava eruptions on the other side of the planet and left a concentric ring over 2 km (1.24 mi) tall surrounding the impact crater. Overall, about 15 impact basins have been identified on those parts of Mercury that have been surveyed.
Earth’s surface, meanwhile, is significantly different. For starters, 70% of the surface is covered in oceans while the areas where the Earth’s crust rises above sea level forms the continents. Both above and below sea level, there are mountainous features, volcanoes, scarps (trenches), canyons, plateaus, and abyssal plains. The remaining portions of the surface are covered by mountains, deserts, plains, plateaus, and other landforms.
Mercury’s surface shows many signs of being geologically active in the past, mainly in the form of narrow ridges that extend up to hundreds of kilometers in length. It is believed that these were formed as Mercury’s core and mantle cooled and contracted at a time when the crust had already solidified. However, geological activity ceased billions of years ago and its crust has been solid ever since.
Meanwhile, Earth is still geologically active, owning to convection of the mantle. The lithosphere (the crust and upper layer of the mantle) is broken into pieces called tectonic plates. These plates move in relation to one another and interactions between them is what causes earthquakes, volcanic activity (such as the “Pacific Ring of Fire“), mountain-building, and oceanic trench formation.
Atmosphere and Temperature:
When it comes to their atmospheres, Earth and Mercury could not be more different. Earth has a dense atmosphere composed of five main layers – the Troposphere, the Stratosphere, the Mesosphere, the Thermosphere, and the Exosphere. Earth’s atmosphere is also primarily composed of nitrogen (78%) and oxygen (21%) with trace concentrations of water vapor, carbon dioxide, and other gaseous molecules.
Because of this, the average surface temperature on Earth is approximately 14°C, with plenty of variation due to geographical region, elevation, and time of year. The hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth was 70.7°C (159°F) in the Lut Desert of Iran, while the coldest temperature was -89.2°C (-129°F) at the Soviet Vostok Station on the Antarctic Plateau.
Mercury, meanwhile, has a tenuous and variable exosphere that is made up of hydrogen, helium, oxygen, sodium, calcium, potassium and water vapor, with a combined pressure level of about 10-14 bar (one-quadrillionth of Earth’s atmospheric pressure). It is believed this exosphere was formed from particles captured from the Sun, volcanic outgassing and debris kicked into orbit by micrometeorite impacts.
Because it lacks a viable atmosphere, Mercury has no way to retain the heat from the Sun. As a result of this and its high eccentricity, the planet experiences far more extreme variations in temperature than Earth does. Whereas the side that faces the Sun can reach temperatures of up to 700 K (427° C), the side that is in darkness can reach temperatures as low as 100 K (-173° C).
Despite these highs in temperature, the existence of water ice and even organic molecules has been confirmed on Mercury’s surface. The floors of deep craters at the poles are never exposed to direct sunlight, and temperatures there remain below the planetary average. In this respect, Mercury and Earth have something else in common, which is the presence of water ice in its polar regions.
Much like Earth, Mercury has a significant, and apparently global, magnetic field, one which is about 1.1% the strength of Earth’s. It is likely that this magnetic field is generated by a dynamo effect, in a manner similar to the magnetic field of Earth. This dynamo effect would result from the circulation of the planet’s iron-rich liquid core.
Mercury’s magnetic field is strong enough to deflect the solar wind around the planet, thus creating a magnetosphere. The planet’s magnetosphere, though small enough to fit within Earth, is strong enough to trap solar wind plasma, which contributes to the space weathering of the planet’s surface.
All told, Mercury and Earth are in stark contrast. While both are terrestrial in nature, Mercury is significantly smaller and less massive than Earth, though it has a similar density. Mercury’s composition is also much more metallic than that of Earth, and its 3:2 orbital resonance results in a single day being twice as long as a year.
But perhaps most stark of all are the extremes in temperature variations that Mercury goes through compared to Earth. Naturally, this is due to the fact that Mercury orbits much closer to the Sun than the Earth does and has no atmosphere to speak of. And its long days and long nights also mean that one side is constantly being baked by the Sun, or in freezing darkness.