Mercury Discoveries Heating Up

How did the planets come to be the way they are today? Are the forces that formed them still around? Where do we stand in this massive cosmic ballet known as the Solar System? Recent discoveries of the sun’s most intimate neighbor, who shares its name with the Messenger God of Greek mythology. What do we share in common with our fiery friend two doors down?

Of all the planets in the solar system, Mercury has the most bizarre orbit. With a diameter of 3,031 miles, it’s the smallest planet in The Solar System. By comparison, the Earth’s diameter is 7,901 miles. The moon, though Earth’s satellite, is almost as big as mercury at 2,159 miles. Previously Pluto was the solar system’s smallest planet, but in 2006 Pluto was demoted from planet to planetoid. The surface of the planet is primarily Hydrogen, Helium, and Oxygen. Despite the oxygen present in its atmosphere, however, since the harsh temperatures can range from -279 degrees (enough to freeze a pouring glass of water before it hit the ground) to 800 degrees Fahrenheit (enough to melt lead just by sitting on the surface.)

The spacecraft dispatched to study the surface of the planet was the MESSENGER (Mercury Surface Space Environment Geochemistry and Ranging) which was launched on August 03, 2004 from Cape Canaveral in Florida and was slingshot from Earth’s orbit toward Mercury so it would reach on January 14th of 2008 and do its second flyby on October 06 of the same year. Recently, on September 29th of this year the MESSENGER made its most recent flyby and sent back data that has been analyzed ever since. The craft was designed to study the infrared, ultraviolet, and x-rays of the planet. The Magnetometer onboard measured the geomagnetic structure of the planet.

The previous expedition prior to the MESSENGER was called the Mariner, and it sent back images of Mercury’s surface which appeared quite moon-like in its surface area. Altogether the planet seemed geologically dead and void of life and seemed to lack any interesting features inherent of a terrestrial body that is geologically active. Then, as MESSENGER sent back its images scientists at NASA discovered quite a different picture. According to NASA images, Mercury is not only geologically active, but is even host to several volcanoes and has several preserved lava flows running in deep channels on the surface. The poles of the planet, since they are perpendicular to their orbit, always have the sun at the horizon. Therefore, if you were to stand on the poles of Mercury, you would see the sun half exposed on the horizon spinning around the surface rather than rising and falling as it does on the Earth.

Perhaps most interestingly, since the poles are home to several massive craters, they are capable of maintaining temperatures well beyond water’s boiling point and even its melting point. Therefore, it is conceivable that ice could be somewhere on Mercury’s poles within the craters. MESSENGER has thus far, however, been unable to unearth any hard evidence of this fact.