Excerpt from statecolumn.com
On April 30, NASA concluded an historic voyage known as the Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging mission. The mission came to an end when the spacecraft carrying analytical instruments, Messenger, crashed into the planet’s surface after consuming all of its fuel.
The mission was far from a waste, however, as NASA rarely expects to see the majority of the spacecraft they launch ever again. According to Discovery, The probe sent back a spectacular photo of the surface of Mercury, using the craft’s Narrow Angle Camera in tandem with the Mercury Dual Imaging System. The photo shows a mile-wide view of the nearby planet’s surface in 2.1 meters per pixel resolution.
Right after the probe delivered the photo to NASA’s Deep Space Network, which is a collection of global radio antennae that tracks data on the agency’s robotic missions around the solar system, the signal was lost in what scientists assume was the craft’s final contact with the closest planet to the sun.
The main challenge the Messenger mission faced was getting the space probe into orbit around Mercury. Due to the planet’s proximity to the sun, it was extremely difficult for flight engineers to avoid its gravitational pull. In addition to the challenge of catching Mercury’s comparatively weak gravitational force, high temperatures also made things tricky. Messenger was equipped with a sunshield designed to protect the spaceship cool on the side that faced the sun. NASA engineers also attempted to chart a long, elliptical orbit around Mercury, giving Messenger time to cool off as it rounded the backside of the planet.
Messenger made over 4,000 orbits around Mercury between 2011 and 2015, many more than the originally planned one-year mission would allow.
With the close-up shots of Mercury’s surface provided by Messenger, NASA scientists were able to detect trace signals of magnetic activity in Mercury’s crust. Using clues from the number of impact craters on the surface, scientists figured that Mercury’s magnetized regions could be as old as 3.7 billion years. Astronomers count the craters on a planet in order to estimate its age – the logic being that younger surfaces should have fewer impact sites than older surfaces.
The data sent back by Messenger has caused astronomers to reconsider their understanding of Mercury’s magnetic history. They now date the beginning of magnetism on Mercury to about 700 million years after the planet was formed. They cannot say for sure, however, if the magnetic field has been consistently active over this timeframe.
According to Messenger guest investigator Catherine Johnson, geophysicist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, that it was possible the magnetic field has been active under constant conditions, though she suspects it might also oscillate over time, like Earth’s. Information for the time period between 4 billion years ago and present day is sparse, though Johnson added that additional research is in the pipeline.
Johnson was pleased, however, with the insight offered into Mercury’s formation provided by these new magnetic clues. Magnetism on a planetary scale typically indicates a liquid metal interior. Since Mercury is so tiny, scientists originally believed that its center would be solid, due to the rate of cooling. The presence of liquid in the planet’s center suggests other materials’ presence, which would lower the freezing point. This suggests that a totally solid core would be unlikely.
Mercury’s magnetic field offers valuable insight into the formation of the planet, the solar system, and even the universe. Magnetism on Mercury indicates that it has a liquid iron core, according to Messenger lead scientist Sean Solomon of Columbia University.