[meteorite-list] MESSENGER Data May Reveal the Remains of Mercury's Oldest Crust
From: Ron Baalke <baalke_at_meteoritecentral.com>
Date: Fri, 18 Mar 2016 15:47:20 -0700 (PDT)
MESSENGER Mission News
March 7, 2016
MESSENGER Data May Reveal the Remains of Mercury's Oldest Crust
Mercury's surface is unusually dark, an observation that until recently
had planetary scientists mystified. But in a new study published today
<http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2669> in Nature Geoscience, a team of
researchers provides evidence that the darkening agent is carbon, a
finding that offers important clues to the nature of the planet's
Patrick Peplowski, a research scientist at the Johns Hopkins University
Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, and lead author of
the paper, explains that earlier measurements of the chemistry of
Mercury's surface only added to this mystery because they indicated that
Mercury's surface has low abundances of iron and titanium, important
constituents of the most common darkening agents on the Moon and other
"A process of elimination led prior researchers to suggest that carbon
may be the unidentified darkening agent, but we lacked proof," he said.
"Spectral modeling of MESSENGER color imaging data suggested that
weight-percent levels of carbon, likely in the form of graphite, would
be required to darken Mercury's surface sufficiently. This level is
unusually high, given that carbon is found at typical concentrations of
only ~100 parts per million on the Moon, Earth and Mars."
Whatever the darkening agent, the scientists surmised that it was most
concentrated in Mercury's low-reflectance material (LRM), which
generally appears as deposits excavated from depth by impact cratering.
The researchers examined MESSENGER Neutron Spectrometer measurements of
LRM and surrounding materials, and they found that increases in
low-energy neutrons are spatially correlated with LRM. Such increases
require that the LRM have higher concentrations of an element that is
inefficient at absorbing neutrons. Carbon is the only darkening agent
suggested for Mercury that is also an inefficient neutron absorber.
These measurements were possible only late in MESSENGER's second
extended mission, when the spacecraft regularly passed within tens of
kilometers of Mercury's surface -- a necessary condition to resolve LRM
deposits with the Neutron Spectrometer. Prior measurements acquired at
altitudes greater than 200 kilometers couldn't resolve such deposits.
The data used to identify carbon included measurements taken just days
before MESSENGER impacted Mercury in April 2015.
"The global mapping of LRM shows that its source regions must typically
lie deep within Mercury's crust, because the deposits are brought to the
surface only by large impact craters," said coauthor Rachel Klima, a
planetary geologist at APL who was instrumental in analyzing the
multispectral image data to identify occurrences of LRM.
Like Earth's Moon and the other inner planets, Mercury likely had a
global magma ocean when it was young and the surface was very hot,
according to Klima. "Experiments and modeling show that as this magma
ocean cooled and minerals began to crystallize, minerals that solidified
would all sink with the exception of graphite, which would have been
buoyant and would have accumulated as the original crust of Mercury. We
think that LRM may contain remnants of this primordial crust. If so, we
may be observing the remains of Mercury's original,
These findings not only directly test hypotheses for how Mercury's
earliest crust formed but also provide clues about the volatile
composition of the material from which Mercury accreted, "which in turn
tells us about the distribution of material in orbit about the Sun
during solar system formation," Klima said.
Planetary scientists said there are still many big questions to be
answered. For one, what are the other minerals that make up Mercury's crust?
"We have some ideas from elemental data from MESSENGER's X-Ray
Spectrometer and Gamma-Ray Spectrometer, but because the surface is so
low in iron we cannot use visible and near-infrared spectra to probe the
mineralogical composition of surface materials in the way we normally do
for other rocky bodies," Klima said.
The nature of LRM remains an important area of study, Peplowski adds.
"If we've really identified the remains of Mercury's original crust,
then understanding its properties provides a means for understanding
Mercury's earliest history."
Additional coauthors on this paper include APL's David Lawrence, Carolyn
Ernst, Brett Denevi, John Goldstein and Scott Murchie; Elizabeth Frank
and Larry Nittler, of the Carnegie Institution of Washington; and
MESSENGER Principal Investigator Sean Solomon, of the Lamont-Doherty
Earth Observatory, Columbia University.
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 was launched on August 3, 2004, and entered orbit
about Mercury on March 17, 2011 (March 18, 2011 UTC), to begin a yearlong
study of its target planet. MESSENGER's first extended mission began on
March 18, 2012, and ended one year later. MESSENGER is now in a second
extended mission, which is scheduled to conclude in March 2015. Dr. Sean
C. Solomon, the Director of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth
Observatory, 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.
Received on Fri 18 Mar 2016 06:47:20 PM PDT