Discover How We Came to Know the Cosmos

Chapter 15. The planet Mercury

18th December 2017 by Dr Helen Klus

15.1 Characteristics of Mercury

Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun. It’s the smallest and least massive planet in the Solar System. It’s also the fastest, with an orbital velocity of over 47 km/s. Mercury has the shortest year, completing one orbit in 88 Earth-days, but it has very long days, with one day on Mercury taking about 176 Earth-days. This makes it the only planet in the Solar System with days that are longer than years.

Photograph of Mercury.

Figure 15.1
Image credit

Mercury, image taken by MESSENGER.

The length of the day is the time from sunrise to sunrise. For the inner planets, the length of day is different from the rotation period. This because the planet needs to rotate an extra distance in order to be at the same angle relative to the Sun (as shown in Figure 15.2). The day is generally longer, relative to the rotation period, the closer the planet is to the Sun.

Diagram showing how Mercury’s day is longer than the rotation of the planet due to the angle between the planet and the Sun.

Figure 15.2
Image credit

The length of the day (1-3) is longer than the rotation period of the planet (1-2).

Mercury also has the most eccentric orbit of all the planets in the Solar System.[1] This means that its orbit is more elliptical than the orbits of the other planets, which are very close to being circular. This is due to the effects of general relativity (discussed in Chapter 8).

Mercury is a rocky planet, similar to the Moon. It has at least as many craters and is covered with dust. It has no satellites of its own, and, like the Moon, it’s not massive enough to sustain an atmosphere. Unlike the Moon, however, it has a massive iron core, which generates a magnetic field about 1% as strong as the Earth’s.[2]

Radar observations conducted by the Goldstone antenna in California and the Very Large Array in New Mexico, in the early 1990s, suggested that frozen water exists at the bottom of deep craters on Mercury’s poles.[3]

Despite the fact that Mercury is bright when viewed from Earth, it’s difficult to observe as it’s usually hidden in the light of the Sun. It’s best viewed early in the morning or at twilight. The Ancient Greeks gave Mercury two names: Apollo, which was visible at sunrise, and Hermes, which was visible at sunset. Hermes was later named Mercury by the Romans, and was considered the messenger of the gods.[4]

15.2 Missions to Mercury

Only two spacecraft have ever been to Mercury. These are NASA’s Mariner 10 and MESSENGER spacecraft. Mariner 10 launched in 1973, and mapped almost half of Mercury’s surface by 1975.[2] MESSENGER launched in 2004, and orbited Mercury between 2011 and 2015. It mapped the whole surface[5] and found further evidence of frozen water.[6]

The next mission to Mercury, BepiColombo, is a joint mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). It is due to launch in 2018, and should arrive in 2024.

Close up photograph of Mercury.

Figure 15.3
Image credit

Mercury, image taken by MESSENGER.

Mercury Fact Sheet[1]

Designation = Terrestrial (rocky) planet
Mass = 3.3×1023 kg (5.5% mass of Earth)
Radius = 2440 km (38.2% radius of Earth)
Density = 5427 kg/m3 (98.4% density of Earth)
Length of Day = 4222.6 hours (175.9 Earth-days)
Length of year = 88.0 Earth-days
Days per year = 0.50 days on Mercury per year on Mercury
Distance from the Sun = 5.8×107 km (0.39 AU)
Orbital Velocity = 47.4 km/s
Orbital Eccentricity = 0.205
Obliquity (tilt) = 0.01°
Mean Temperature = 167 °C
Moons = None
Ring System = None

15.3 References

  1. NASA, Planetary Fact Sheet, Planetary Science - NASA.

  2. NASA, Mercury: In Depth, NASA Solar System Exploration.

  3. NASA, Ice on Mercury, Planetary Science - NASA.

  4. ESO, Mercury and Mythology, ESO.

  5. Talbert, T., MESSENGER Has Imaged 100 Percent of Mercury, NASA, 2013.

  6. Talbert, T., MESSENGER Finds New Evidence for Water Ice at Mercury’s Poles, NASA, 2012.

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How We Came to Know the Cosmos: Space & Time

I Pre 20th Century theories

1. Constellations

2. Latitude and Longitude

3. Models of the Universe

4. Force, Momentum, and Energy

5. Newton’s theory of Gravity

6. The Age of the Universe

II 20th Century discoveries

7. Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity

8. Einstein’s theory of General Relativity

9. The Origin of the Universe

10. Galaxies

11. Stars

12. Red Giants and White Dwarfs

13. Supergiants, Supernova, and Neutron Stars

14. Black Holes

III Missions to planets

15. The planet Mercury

16. The planet Venus

17. The planet Earth

18. The Earth’s Moon

19. The planet Mars

20. The Asteroid Belt

21. The planet Jupiter

22. The planet Saturn

23. The planet Uranus

24. The planet Neptune

IV Beyond the planets

25. Comets

26. The Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud

27. The Pioneer and Voyager Missions

28. Discovering Exoplanets

29. The Search for Alien Life in the Universe

30. Where are all the Aliens?

V List of symbols

31. List of symbols

32. Image Copyright