Public Release: 

Mercury's contraction much greater than thought

Carnegie Institution for Science


IMAGE: 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 kilometers). The colors correspond to... view more

Credit: Image courtesy NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Washington, D.C.--New global imaging and topographic data from MESSENGER* show that the innermost planet has contracted far more than previous estimates. The results are based on a global study of more than 5,900 geological landforms, such as curving cliff-like scarps and wrinkle ridges, that have resulted from the planet's contraction as Mercury cooled. The findings, published online March 16, 2014, in Nature Geoscience, are key to understanding the planet's thermal, tectonic, and volcanic history, and the structure of its unusually large metallic core.

Unlike Earth, with its numerous tectonic plates, Mercury has a single rigid, top rocky layer. Prior to the MESSENGER mission only about 45% of Mercury's surface had been imaged by a spacecraft. Old estimates, based on this non-global coverage, suggested that the planet had contracted radially by about ½ to 2 miles (0.8 to 3 kilometers) substantially less than that indicated by models of the planet's thermal history. Those models predicted a radial contraction of about 3 to 6 miles (5 to 10 kilometers) starting from the late heavy bombardment of the Solar System, which ended about 3.8 billion years ago.

The new results, which are based on the first comprehensive survey of the planet's surface, show that Mercury contracted radially by as much as 4.4 miles (7 kilometers)--substantially more than the old estimates, but in agreement with the thermal models. Mercury's modern radius is 1,516 miles (2,440 kilometers).

"These new results resolved a decades-old paradox between thermal history models and estimates of Mercury's contraction," remarked lead author of the study, Paul Byrne, a planetary geologist and MESSENGER visiting investigator at Carnegie's Department of Terrestrial Magnetism. "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. Those models were developed to explain mountain building and tectonic activity in the nineteenth century, before plate tectonics theory."

Byrne and his coauthors identified a much greater number and variety of geological structures on the planet than had been recognized in previous research. They identified 5,934 ridges and scarps attributed to global contraction, which ranged from 5 to 560 miles (9 to 900 kilometers) in length.

The researchers used two complementary techniques to estimate the contraction from their global survey of structures. Although the two estimates of radius change differed by 0.6 to 1 mile (1 to 1.6 kilometers), both were substantially greater than old estimates.

"I became interested in the thermal evolution of Mercury's interior when the Mariner 10 spacecraft sent back images of the planet's great scarps in 1974-75, but the thermal history models predicted much more global contraction than the geologists inferred from the scarps then observed, even correcting for the fact that Mariner 10 imaged less than half of Mercury's surface," noted Sean Solomon, principal investigator of the mission, former director of Carnegie's Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, and current director of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. "This discrepancy between theory and observation, a major puzzle for four decades, has finally been resolved. It is wonderfully affirming to see that our theoretical understanding is at last matched by geological evidence."


Image caption

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 kilometers). 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

MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) is a NASA-sponsored scientific investigation of the planet Mercury and the first space mission designed to orbit the planet closest to the Sun. The MESSENGER spacecraft launched on August 3, 2004, and entered orbit about Mercury on March 18, 2011 (UTC), to begin its primary mission - a yearlong study of its target planet. MESSENGER's first extended mission began on March 18, 2012, and ended one year later. MESSENGER is currently operating in its second extended mission. Dr. Sean C. Solomon, of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, leads the mission as Principal Investigator. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory built and operates the MESSENGER spacecraft and manages this Discovery-class mission for NASA.

Authors on the paper are Paul Byrne, Carnegie and the Lunar and Planetary Institute; Christian Klimczak, Carnegie; A. M. Celâl Şengör, Eurasia Institute of Earth Sciences; Sean Solomon, Carnegie and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory; Thomas Watters, Smithsonian; and Steven Hauk, II, Case Western University.

The Carnegie Institution for Science is a private, nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., with six research departments throughout the U.S. Since its founding in 1902, the Carnegie Institution has been a pioneering force in basic scientific research. Carnegie scientists are leaders in plant biology, developmental biology, astronomy, materials science, global ecology, and Earth and planetary science.

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