Mercury’s surface still changing

MESSENGER’s snapshot of cliffs hints at tectonic activity within last 50 million years

mercury image

RISE UP  A line of small scarps (arrows) on Mercury, seen in this image from the MESSENGER spacecraft, suggest that the planet has been tectonically active in the last 50 million years.

NASA, JHUAPL, Carnegie Institution of Washington

Mercury has gotten some new wrinkles in its old age. The innermost planet shows signs of relatively recent tectonic activity, a new study suggests.

Tiny cliffs on the surface — just tens of meters high and a few kilometers long — resemble breaks in the planet’s crust, researchers report online September 26 in Nature Geoscience. The diminutive sizes of the cliffs, their sharp edges and lack of large overlapping craters imply that the faults are geologically young — less than 50 million years old. That’s much younger than Mercury’s larger, eroded scarps seen elsewhere, which probably arose more than 3.5 billion years ago. The small scarps indicate that the surface still fractures as Mercury cools and contracts, the researchers suggest, though other explanations are possible.

Thomas Watters, a geologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and colleagues discovered the young escarpments in images taken by NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft, which orbited Mercury from 2011 to 2015. During the last 18 months of the mission, the spacecraft inched closer to the surface of Mercury, revealing new details such as these small scarps. The mission ended with an intentional crash landing on April 30, 2015 (SN Online: 4/30/15).

Mercury’s continued contraction isn’t surprising, says Sean Solomon, a planetary scientist at Columbia University. “It’s demanded by physics,” he says. Mercury has gradually cooled over its 4.6-billion-year history. As it cools, it shrinks. Sometimes that shrinkage cracks the surface. All of the other rocky planets shrivel over time as well, but their atmospheres have erased much of the evidence. Only on Mercury and the moon — both airless — is the history of contraction preserved because of limited erosion.

It’s not clear, though, if these new faults are related to that shrinking. “In and of themselves, they don’t tell us very much,” says Paul Byrne, a planetary geologist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Without an analysis of how the small, young scarps relate to the large, old scarps, he says, it’s hard to draw conclusions. The new arrivals could just as well be produced by shifting rubble or shock waves from run-ins with asteroids, and if so would not be a sign of continuing tectonic activity.

A closer inspection of Mercury will have to wait until the European spacecraft BepiColombo, scheduled to launch in 2018, arrives in late 2024. While its altitude will be similar to MESSENGER’s, BepiColombo will get a better look at Mercury’s southern hemisphere, which should allow researchers to get a more global view of how all these wrinkles in the surface tie together.

Christopher Crockett is an Associate News Editor. He was formerly the astronomy writer from 2014 to 2017, and he has a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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