What can we learn about Mercury’s surface during the eclipse?

A telescope aboard a pair of research jets will make a thermal map of the planet during the eclipse


FIRST ROCK FROM THE SUN  NASA’s Messenger spacecraft orbited Mercury for four years, giving an unprecedented view of its surface, including this enhanced view of the chemicals and minerals that coat it. A mission during the 2017 total solar eclipse will take a deeper look at the planet.

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

On the morning of August 21, a pair of jets will take off from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston to chase the shadow of the moon. They will climb to 15 kilometers in the stratosphere and fly in the path of the total solar eclipse over Missouri, Illinois and Tennessee at 750 kilometers per hour.

But some of the instruments the jets carry won’t be looking at the sun, or even at Earth. They’ll be focused on a different celestial body: Mercury. In the handful of minutes that the planes zip along in darkness, the instruments could collect enough data to answer this Mercury mystery: What is the innermost planet’s surface made of?

Because it’s so close to the sun, Mercury is tough to study from Earth. It’s difficult to observe close up, too. Extreme heat and radiation threaten to fry any spacecraft that gets too close. And the sun’s brightness can swamp a hardy spacecraft’s efforts to send signals back to Earth.

NASA’s Messenger spacecraft orbited Mercury from 2011 to 2015 and revealed a battered, scarred landscape made of different material than the rest of the terrestrial planets (SN: 11/19/11, p. 17).

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CHASING THE MOON A pair of NASA research planes with telescopes in their noses will fly in the moon’s shadow on August 21, extending the eclipse from two minutes to more than six. NASA Goddard/YouTube

But Messenger only scratched the surface, so to speak. It analyzed the planet’s composition with an instrument called a reflectance spectrometer, which collects light and then splits that light into its component wavelengths to figure out which elements the light was reflected from.

Messenger took measurements of reflected light from Mercury’s surface at wavelengths shorter than 1 micrometer, which revealed, among other things, that Mercury contains a surprising amount of sulfur and potassium (SN: 7/16/11, p. 12). Those wavelengths come only from the top few micrometers of Mercury. What lies below is still unknown.

To dig a few centimeters deeper into Mercury’s surface, solar physicist Amir Caspi and planetary scientist Constantine Tsang of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., and colleagues will use an infrared camera, specially built by Alabama-based Southern Research, that detects wavelengths between 3 and 5 micrometers.  

Copies of the instrument will fly on the two NASA WB-57 research jets, whose altitude and speed will give the observers two advantages: less atmospheric interference and more time in the path of the eclipse. Chasing the moon’s shadow will let the planes stay in totality — the region where the sun’s bright disk is completely blocked by the moon — for a combined 400 seconds (6.67 minutes). That’s nearly three times longer than they would get by staying in one spot.

NASA research jet
FOLLOW YOUR NOSE Telescopes mounted in the noses of twin research jets will be aimed at Mercury to find out what its subsurface is made of. Amir Caspi

Mercury’s dayside surface is 425° Celsius, and it actually emits light at 4.1 micrometers — right in the middle of the range of Caspi’s instrument. As any given spot on Mercury rotates away from the sun, its temperature drops as low as ‒179° C. Measuring how quickly the planet loses heat can help researchers figure out what the subsurface material is made of and how densely it’s packed. Looser sand will give up its heat more readily, while more close-packed rock will hold heat in longer.

“This is something that has never been done before,” Caspi says. “We’re going to try to make the first thermal image heat map of the surface of Mercury.”

Unfortunately for Caspi, only two people can fly on the jet: The pilot and someone to run the instrument. Caspi will remain on the ground in Houston, out of the path of totality. “So I will get to watch the eclipse on TV,” Caspi says.

Editor’s note: This story was updated August 14, 2017, to correct the description of the instrument that will be used to study Mercury’s surface.

Lisa Grossman is the astronomy writer. She has a degree in astronomy from Cornell University and a graduate certificate in science writing from University of California, Santa Cruz. She lives near Boston.

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