A limb shot of Mercury’s horizon taken by the
MESSENGER spacecraft on January 14, 2008.

If you can take a name like “Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging” and craft it into a neat acronym like MESSENGER, then you may have a future working with NASA….

And no, this blog isn’t about NASA acronymizations, but rather the heat-resistant robot behind one of them. MESSENGER is the space probe that NASA sent to Mercury to give the Solar System’s innermost planet the first up-close look since 1975, when Mariner 10 flew by.

Though MESSENGER’s main mission will begin in earnest when it returns to Mercury and finally settles into an orbit around the planet, on March 18th 2011, we were given a tantalizing peak last January 14th when the probe made its initial flyby.

What did this quick, on the fly snapshot tell us that we didn’t know before? Well-a lot, considering Mercury has been one of the least understood planets in the Solar System, and was for a long time thought to be similar in character to our own Moon. Mercury is shaping up to be a lot less like Earth’s Moon than its gray, cratered, airless appearance would mislead.

One key difference: density-how much material is packed into the planet; or how heavy a standard sized chunk of it would be. Our Moon is a lightweight on this score, with an average density of only 3.4 grams per cubic centimeter, while Mercury weighs in at a hefty 5.427 g/cc-almost as dense as Earth.

Another key difference: magnetic field. Planets like Earth and the Gas Giant worlds (Jupiter et al) generate respectable magnetic force fields, useful for everything from deflecting plasma flowing from the Sun (the “solar wind”) to properly directing magnetic compass needles. Venus, Mars, and our Moon do not possess magnetic fields worth mentioning, as it turns out.

Mercury, on the other hand, does. Planetary magnetic fields are believed to be generated by currents in a planet’s liquid outer core-like how the electric current in the wire coil of an electromagnet generates a magnetic field. Mercury’s magnetic field suggests it still has some activity in its core-molten metals circulating in currents as the core slowly cools off. And speaking of Mercury’s core, it appears to comprise 60% of the planet’s mass-about twice what is “typical” for Terrestrial (solid) planets.

I’ve often imagined Mercury to be a cosmic goldmine, with its apparent richness in metals and its density. I wonder if an astronaut could just walk along and pick up chunks of gold from its surface….

Another interesting find by MESSENGER is that some of the flat plains on Mercury may have been formed by volcanoes, long ago. In particular, MESSENGER imaged a number of volcanoes along the edge of the Caloris Basin, a large impact basin-one of the largest in the Solar System, at 1550 kilometers across.

The news coming out of the innermost region of the Solar System makes me giddy. Too bad I have to wait until 2011 for my next look at Mercury. These things take time.

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Messages from Mercury 12 June,2013Ben Burress


Ben Burress

Benjamin Burress has been a staff astronomer at Chabot Space & Science Center since July 1999. He graduated from Sonoma State University in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in physics (and minor in astronomy), after which he signed on for a two-year stint in the Peace Corps, where he taught physics and mathematics in the African nation of Cameroon. From 1989-96 he served on the crew of NASA’s Kuiper Airborne Observatory at Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA. From 1996-99, he was Head Observer at the Naval Prototype Optical Interferometer program at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ.

Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.

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