Some New Discoveries about Mercury

Some New Discoveries about Mercury

In the realm of space, there is much more that is unknown than is known. Even in today’s world of modern technology, scientists can still only speculate to the number of stars in the sky and are still bewildered by the mysterious workings of black holes. In a universe that extends beyond our wildest imaginations, unknowns are a given, but a surprising fact is there are still many things that remain unknown in our own solar system. In the case of Mercury, which is only two planets away from our own planet, there was, and continues to be a great deal of mysteries. The Mariner probe was able to take images of the planet after flying by in 1974, but these low quality images were only clues into the history and formation of the planet. Luckily, some of the questions about Mercury’s existence are being answered by the MESSENGER space probe. After launching in 2004, the MESSENGER has successfully entered the orbit of Mercury–being the first space craft to do so–and has been gathering data ever since. The combination of photographs and other observations have allowed for many new discoveries about the planet, as well as hints about its past.

Many of the discoveries about Mercury can be linked to physical features captured by the MESSENGER probe. Across Mercury’s surface, images were retrieved exposing volcanic planes. The presence of proof of such extensive volcanic activity confirms many scientists’ theories that volcanoes were responsible for shaping much of the planet in its early years. Additionally, for the first time, large clusters of rimless pits are also found littered throughout Mercury. Although scientists are not sure how these pits were formed, it is a clue into the composition of Mercury’s crust, which may be more variable than previously expected.

Photographic images are not the only source of new information for scientists, X-Ray scans have also allowed for scientists to learn new information about the composition of Mercury’s surface. These discoveries include higher sulfur content in the surface than previously expected and important differences in magnesium, aluminum and calcium levels than the moon. Scans have also revealed higher concentrations of potassium than expected, which have proven to eliminate some of the previous theories about the planet’s creation.

Some of the most surprising discoveries about Mercury have been in the realm of magnetic fields and energetic particles. Unlike Earth, which has a magnetic field at the center of the planet, Mercury actually has a magnetic field that starts 300 miles north of the equator. This results in a north-south asymmetry for the magnetic field. Mercury’s unique magnetic field makes the southern side of the planet more susceptible to charged particles heated by solar wind, which affects the planet’s atmosphere. As the MESSENGER has orbited around Mercury it has witnessed multiple cases of bursting energetic particles. These bursts occur at varying strengths and distributions and consist of electrons, not electric ions. In the coming weeks, scientists will push to try and understand where these bursts are being generated from.

Data collected by MESSENGER is helping to piece together the pieces of the Mercury mystery. With more time and data collection, scientists may soon be able to accurately answer the questions on how the planet was formed and how its history has formed its geological features of today.

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