MESSENGER completes primary study of Mercury

Revealing startling new information about the planet's topography, polar regions and core structure

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

 

The mottled surface of Mercury captured by NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft


NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft has finally completed its primary mission. Having conducted the most detailed ever study of Mercury, MESSENGER has - 10 years after leaving Earth – conveyed almost 100,000 images and a wealth of data offering new insights into the planet’s core structure, topography and mysterious polar regions

This new information suggests Mercury's core is far larger than previously expected, accounting for nearly 85 percent of the planet’s radius. Furthermore, it seems as well as being far bigger than Earth’s, Mercury’s core appears to be much more complex. It comprises of a solid iron sulfide layer - now part of the mantle, which encases a liquid core, that scientists believe, may float on another solid, inner core.

New topographic data has been accumulated to create a precise model of the planet’s northern hemisphere, revealing a smaller spread in elevations compared to those on Mars or the Moon.

Images of radar-bright features in areas of permanent shadow at the polar regions hint that water-ice may exist on Mercury. On Earth, snowmelt is detected by radar in the same way. This can only be verified however, once MESSENGER deploys its neutron spectrometer.

As a result of the success of its first year, MESSENGER’s mission has now been extended for another 12 months.

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