Mercury Shrinking: the First Rock from the Sun Contracted More than Once Thought

MESSENGER image of Mercury from its third flyby (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

Whatever Mercury’s did to trim down its waistline has worked better than anyone thought — the innermost planet in our Solar System has reduced its radius* by about 7 kilometers (4.4 miles), over double the amount once estimated by scientists.

Of course you wouldn’t want to rush to begin the Mercury diet — its planetary contraction has taken place over the course of 3.8 billion years, since the end of the Late Heavy Bombardment. Still — lookin’ good, Mercury!

These findings come thanks to the MESSENGER spacecraft, in orbit around Mercury since 2011. Now that MESSENGER has successfully mapped literally all of Mercury’s surface, detailed measurements of more than 5,900 landforms created by cooling and contraction of the planet’s crust have allowed researchers to more precisely determine its geologic history and answer some decades-old questions raised by Mariner 10 images.

“This discrepancy between theory and observation, a major puzzle for four decades, has finally been resolved,” said MESSENGER Principal Investigator Sean Solomon. “It is wonderfully affirming to see that our theoretical understanding is at last matched by geological evidence.”

This image shows a long collection of ridges and scarps on the planet Mercury called a fold-and-thrust belt. The belt stretches over 336 miles (540 km). The colors correspond to elevation—yellow-green is high and blue is low. Image courtesy NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington.
This image shows a fold-and-thrust belt stretching over 540 km on Mercury. The colors correspond to elevation— yellow/green is high and blue is low. (Courtesy NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington.)

Using high-definition images acquired with MESSENGER’s MDIS (Mercury Dual Imaging System) instrument, planetary geologist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington and study lead author Paul Byrne and his colleagues identified 5,934 lobate scarps and wrinkle ridges on Mercury that are the result of contraction. From measurements of these features, the team determined that the planet’s radial contraction was much more than that estimated by models based on incomplete imaging from NASA’s Mariner 10 mission — the very first spacecraft to visit (but not orbit) Mercury.

Watch: Fly Across Mercury with MESSENGER!

“These new results resolved a decades-old paradox between thermal history models and estimates of Mercury’s contraction,” said Byrne. “Now the history of heat production and loss and global contraction are consistent.

“Interestingly, our findings are also reminiscent of now-obsolete models for how large-scale geological deformation occurred on Earth when the scientific community thought that the Earth only had one tectonic plate,” Byrne said. “Those models were developed to explain mountain building and tectonic activity in the nineteenth century, before plate tectonics theory.”

Unlike Earth, Mercury has only one global tectonic plate.

The findings were published in the Sunday, March 16 edition of the journal Nature Geoscience.

Source: MESSENGER press release. Read more about tectonic features on Mercury here.

*Mercury’s current radius is  2,440 kilometers (1,516 miles).