It's small, it's hot, and it's shrinking. New NASA-funded research suggests that Mercury is contracting even today, joining Earth as a tectonically active planet.
Images obtained by NASA's MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft reveal previously undetected small fault scarps-- cliff-like landforms that resemble stair steps. These scarps are small enough that scientists believe they must be geologically young, which means Mercury is still contracting and that Earth is not the only tectonically active planet in our solar system, as previously thought.
The findings are reported in a paper in the October issue of Nature Geoscience.
"The young age of the small scarps means that Mercury joins Earth as a tectonically active planet, with new faults likely forming today as Mercury's interior continues to cool and the planet contracts," said lead author Tom Watters, Smithsonian senior scientist at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Large fault scarps on Mercury were first discovered in the flybys of Mariner 10 in the mid-1970s and confirmed by MESSENGER, which found the planet closest to the sun was shrinking. The large scarps were formed as Mercury's interior cooled, causing the planet to contract and the crust to break and thrust upward along faults making cliffs up to hundreds of miles long and some more than a mile (over one-and-a-half kilometers) high.
In the last 18 months of the MESSENGER mission, the spacecraft's altitude was lowered, which allowed the surface of Mercury to be seen at much higher resolution. These low-altitude images revealed small fault scarps that are orders of magnitude smaller than the larger scarps. The small scarps had to be very young, investigators say, to survive the steady bombardment of meteoroids and comets. They are comparable in scale to small, young lunar scarps that are evidence Earth's moon is also shrinking.
This active faulting is consistent with the recent finding that Mercury's global magnetic field has existed for billions of years and with the slow cooling of Mercury's still hot outer core. It's likely that the smallest of the terrestrial planets also experiences Mercury-quakes--something that may one day be confirmed by seismometers.
"This is why we explore," said NASA Planetary Science Director Jim Green at Headquarters in Washington, D.C. "For years, scientists believed that Mercury's tectonic activity was in the distant past. It's exciting to consider that this small planet - not much larger than Earth's moon - is active even today."
Managed by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, MESSENGER launched Aug. 3, 2004 and began orbiting Mercury March 18, 2011. The mission ended with a planned impact on the surface of Mercury on April 30, 2015.