7 Hot Facts About Mercury

Mercury, the diminutive planet closest to the Sun, was notoriously mysterious due to its difficulty to explore. That changed on March 18, 2011, when the MESSENGER spacecraft from Johns Hopkins' Applied Physics Laboratory achieved orbit around Mercury. The mission spent the next four years transforming scientists' understanding of how Mercury works and what it is made of. Mental Floss spoke to Sean Solomon, the principal investigator of MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging), to learn what's most interesting about the first rock from the Sun.

1. MEET MERCURY BY THE NUMBERS.

Mercury is the smallest terrestrial planet of the solar system. Comparatively, Mercury is about midway in size between Earth's moon and the planet Mars. (Mars is a lot smaller than you might think, and our moon a lot larger.) Mercury is 3032 miles in diameter, which is, as the crow flies, just a little less than the distance from Anchorage to Dallas. Its gravity is 38 percent of Earth's, which means if you weigh 150 pounds here, you'd weigh 57 pounds on Mercury (the same as you would on Mars).

One day on Mercury lasts 59 Earth days, and one year lasts 88, which would make figuring out your age a thorny algebra problem. As you might imagine, days on Mercury can get pretty hot—around 800°F. On Earth a brick of coal at that temperature would burst into flames. (This is not a problem on Mercury, as the planet lacks an atmosphere.) Its nights, meanwhile, are a brisk -280°F. This is the widest day-to-night temperature variation of any planet in the solar system, and would make packing for a trip there very difficult indeed.

2. DESPITE BEING CLOSEST TO THE SUN, IT ISN'T THE HOTTEST PLANET.

Logic would suggest that Mercury is the hottest planet, considering its proximity to the giant fusion reactor at the center of our solar system that is 1,400,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 cubic meters in volume. The hottest planet honor, however, belongs to its neighbor Venus, one planet away, where the average surface temperature is 864°F. On Venus, lead would melt the way an ice cube melts on Earth.

3. MERCURY HAS SURPRISING CHEMISTRY.

Pretty much everything about Mercury should astound the casual observer, but what most surprises the principal investigator of MESSENGER, the first orbiter mission there? "The chemistry—that was the biggest surprise," says Solomon, who is also director of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. "We still don't have a good physical and chemical model for planet formation, and so the result that Mercury is this iron-rich planet, in which the silicate fraction is not only not depleted in elements easily removed by high temperatures, but is more abundant in some of those elements than Earth." The big takeaway from Mercury's chemical profile, Solomon says, is that "we don't really understand how the planets were assembled."

4. UNDERSTANDING ITS FORMATION WILL HELP US UNDERSTAND THE TERRESTRIAL PLANETS.

"How did we end up with four bodies of rock and metal that are quite different?" asks Solomon. "Venus and Earth are different because of their different atmospheres. The different evolution of the climate, and the feedback between climate and interior, led to very different tectonic evolution."

Mars and Earth are different because Mars is so much smaller than Earth, only 10 percent of Earth's mass, he explains. As for Mars and Venus: "A lot of Mars's atmosphere was stripped away by the solar wind, so it turned into this cold, barren desert world, whereas Venus has this dense CO2 atmosphere. Runaway greenhouse [effect] turned it into a hothouse world." Earth is in between.

Mercury suggests that the process of planet forming depends on more than simply planet size, solar distance, and differences in atmosphere. The original building blocks of planets also varied across the inner solar system in important ways. "The chemistry varied, volatile abundances varied, and some conditions must have helped during planet formation that can't be ascribed to late-stage processes like a collision," Solomon says.

Now that we've performed one comprehensive study of Mercury, scientists can endeavor to explain the diversity of the terrestrial planets. "We now have filled in the last missing piece in describing the four siblings of that process [of planetary formation]. They're all different, and yet the parental processes, if you will, must have been in common, so it's a kind of planetary genome expression," Solomon says. "How the heck can gene expression be so different among these four siblings, given that they all started out at the same time by the same processes, in just slightly different places in the inner solar system?"

5. MERCURY IS SHRINKING.

"There are faults all over the surface, and most of those faults involve horizontal shortening," or shrinking. The idea goes all the way back to Mariner 10, a robotic space probe launched by NASA in 1973, says Solomon. "The faults that accommodate horizontal shortening are seen on top of every kind of terrain, and they have a wide range of orientations. The Mariner 10 proposed—and the MESSENGER team confirmed—that contraction has dominated the history of the planet, and is consistent with the planet shrinking over time as the result of interior cooling and contraction of the interior." This tectonic activity has been active over most of the history of the planet, as the planet continues to cool.

But were you to stand on Mercury's surface, you couldn't expect Seti Alpha VI-like cataclysms as the planet suddenly contracts. "Were we to send a seismic experiment to Mercury, we would probably see mercury-quakes not anywhere near the frequency or size of earthquakes, but something more akin to moonquakes," Solomon says.

6. IT HAS WATER ICE.

The orientation of craters found on the poles of Mercury allows for permanently shadowed regions—that is, areas that never receive sunlight, no matter the planet's rotational position or place in its revolution. The conditions in those craters are amenable to stable water ice, on or mere centimeters below the planet's surface. MESSENGER's nuclear spectrometer yielded measurements consistent with water ice on the north pole, and its camera later captured optical-light images of that ice.

7. IT'S HARD TO GET NEAR—BUT WE'RE GOING BACK.

Only two missions have thus far explored Mercury: the Mariner 10 space probe in 1974, and the MESSENGER orbiter in 2011. This is in part because of the tremendous challenges associated with visiting the planet. "Mercury is in a challenging environment," says Solomon. "The Sun is 11 times brighter than it is at Earth. The surface temperature of the day-side is very hot. The night-side temperature, however, is quite cold, so the swings in temperature are large. The radiation environment that close to the Sun is challenging, as we anticipated going into the mission. We were hit directly by streams of energized particles from the Sun."

Mariner 10 performed three fast flybys of Mercury, and scientists spent the next three decades working largely from the close-up science it performed. Mariner's findings and the questions they raised would further contribute to the scientific rationale of an orbiter—what would be the eventual MESSENGER spacecraft.

A Mercury orbiter, of course, is no small order, and placing a spacecraft in orbit around that planet is one of the great achievements of the American space program. You can't just fly to Mercury and enter orbit. A spacecraft would be moving at a velocity far too great for that, as Mercury lacks the atmosphere to allow aerobreaking. Instead, a trajectory had to be calculated in which MESSENGER bounced around the solar system, from Earth, around the Sun and back to Earth; around the Sun and to Venus; around the Sun and back to Venus; and around the Sun four more times, flying closer and closer to Mercury each time, until at last it could enter Mercury's orbit. In essence, MESSENGER borrowed the gravity of other planets to compensate for what Mercury could not provide on a direct flight.

Due to this circuitous route, MESSENGER had to travel 5 billion miles over six-and-a-half years to reach a planet 100 million miles away. Once there, the challenge continued. The spacecraft had to maintain an orientation that kept between its scientific payload and the Sun a giant sunshade, lest the Sun fry the instruments. But extreme heat wasn't the only problem. So was extreme cold. When the spacecraft crossed into Mercury's shadow, an onboard heater had to warm the spacecraft lest the instruments freeze.

Despite the challenges, we're going back. The next mission bound for Mercury will launch in 2018. BepiColombo, a joint mission between the European and Japanese Space Agencies, will place two satellites in orbit around Mercury, where they will study its composition, tenuous atmosphere, and magnetosphere. Like MESSENGER, the spacecraft will require a complex trajectory—and a very long time to reach its target. It will achieve orbit around Mercury in December 2025.

What is Mercury in Retrograde, and Why Do We Blame Things On It?

NASA
NASA

Crashed computers, missed flights, tensions in your workplace—a person who subscribes to astrology would tell you to expect all this chaos and more when Mercury starts retrograding. For the remainder of 2019, that means October 31-November 20. But according to an astronomer, this common celestial phenomenon is no reason to stay cooped up at home for weeks at a time.

"We don't know of any physical mechanism that would cause things like power outages or personality changes in people," Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, tells Mental Floss. So if Mercury doesn’t throw business dealings and relationships out of whack when it appears to change direction in the sky, why are so many people convinced that it does?

The History of "Mercury in Retrograde"

Mercury retrograde—as it's technically called—was being written about in astrology circles as far back as the mid-18th century. The event was noted in British agricultural almanacs of the time, which farmers would read to sync their planting schedules to the patterns of the stars. During the spiritualism craze of the Victorian era, interest in astrology boomed, with many believing that the stars affected the Earth in a variety of (often inconvenient) ways. Late 19th-century publications like The Astrologer’s Magazine and The Science of the Stars connected Mercury retrograde with heavy rainfall. Characterizations of the happening as an "ill omen" also appeared in a handful of articles during that period, but its association with outright disaster wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today.

While other spiritualist hobbies like séances and crystal gazing gradually faded, astrology grew even more popular. By the 1970s, horoscopes were a newspaper mainstay and Mercury retrograde was a recurring player. Because the Roman god Mercury was said to govern travel, commerce, financial wealth, and communication, in astrological circles, Mercury the planet became linked to those matters as well.

"Don’t start anything when Mercury is retrograde," an April 1979 issue of The Baltimore Sun instructed its readers. "A large communications organization notes that magnetic storms, disrupting messages, are prolonged when Mercury appears to be going backwards. Mercury, of course, is the planet associated with communication." The power attributed to the event has become so overblown that today it's blamed for everything from digestive problems to broken washing machines.

What is Mercury in Retrograde?

Though hysteria around Mercury retrograde is stronger than ever, there's still zero evidence that it's something we should worry about. Even the flimsiest explanations, like the idea that the gravitational pull from Mercury influences the water in our bodies in the same way that the moon controls the tides, are easily deflated by science. "A car 20 feet away from you will exert a stronger pull of gravity than the planet Mercury does," Dr. Hammergren says.

To understand how little Mercury retrograde impacts life on Earth, it helps to learn the physical process behind the phenomenon. When the planet nearest to the sun is retrograde, it appears to move "backwards" (east to west rather than west to east) across the sky. This apparent reversal in Mercury's orbit is actually just an illusion to the people viewing it from Earth. Picture Mercury and Earth circling the sun like cars on a racetrack. A year on Mercury is shorter than a year on Earth (88 Earth days compared to 365), which means Mercury experiences four years in the time it takes us to finish one solar loop.

When the planets are next to one another on the same side of the sun, Mercury looks like it's moving east to those of us on Earth. But when Mercury overtakes Earth and continues its orbit, its straight trajectory seems to change course. According to Dr. Hammergren, it's just a trick of perspective. "Same thing if you were passing a car on a highway, maybe going a little bit faster than they are," he says. "They're not really going backwards, they just appear to be going backwards relative to your motion."

Embedded from GIFY

Earth's orbit isn't identical to that of any other planet in the solar system, which means that all the planets appear to move backwards at varying points in time. Planets farther from the sun than Earth have even more noticeable retrograde patterns because they're visible at night. But thanks to astrology, it's Mercury's retrograde motion that incites dread every few months.

Dr. Hammergren blames the superstition attached to Mercury, and astrology as a whole, on confirmation bias: "[Believers] will say, 'Aha! See, there's a shake-up in my workplace because Mercury's retrograde.'" He urges people to review the past year and see if the periods of their lives when Mercury was retrograde were especially catastrophic. They'll likely find that misinterpreted messages and technical problems are fairly common throughout the year. But as Dr. Hammergren says, when things go wrong and Mercury isn't retrograde, "we don't get that hashtag. It's called Monday."

This piece originally ran in 2018.

How to Catch the Transits of Mercury and the 'Demon Star' This Month

Allexxandar/iStock via Getty Images
Allexxandar/iStock via Getty Images

This month's sky-gazing event calendar is all about transits. In astronomy, a transit occurs when one celestial body appears to pass directly in front of another in the night sky, causing the light from one body to diminish in some cases. As Geek reports, there are two main transits to look out for in November: that of Mercury moving across the sun and the dimming and brightening of the "demon star" Algol.

What is a Mercury transit?

Mercury is currently in retrograde (though you shouldn't blame that for any chaos in your personal life). As the innermost planet travels "backwards" across the sky this month, it will make a rare detour past the face of the sun on November 11. Mercury's transit across the sun is something that only happens roughly 13 times every 100 years. Such an event won't be seen again in the U.S. until 2049.

This time around, it will take Mercury about five and a half hours—starting just after sunrise on the East Coast—to make the full journey from one end of the bright yellow disc to the other.

What is a "demon star" transit?

The transit of Algol, also known as the demon star, is a much more common event, but it's no less spectacular. Algol is really two stars in the constellation Perseus that are constantly orbiting each other. Every 2.86736 days, the smaller star of the pair passes in front of the larger star, making it appear slightly dimmer for 10 hours at a time. In the first half of the month, most of these transits occur after sunset on the East Coast, which is the best time to observe the transition. The next is set for November 9 at 3:17 a.m. EST, with the one after that taking place on November 12, six minutes after midnight.

Algol gets its monstrous nickname from a classic villain of Greek mythology. The star is supposed to resemble the winking, snake-haired head of the gorgon Medusa, who was slain by Perseus. Algol is a name derived from an Arabic word meaning "the demon's head."

How to see Mercury's and Algol's transits

To see both of these events, you'll need some special equipment. Looking directly at the sun is never a good idea, and NASA recommends using a telescope with a certified sun filter to watch Mercury's transit safely on November 11. A solar projection box or sun funnel would also allow you to observe the planet's passage without damaging your eyes.

There's no harm in looking straight at the twin stars that make up Algol, but you'll have trouble seeing them "blink" with your naked eye. For that event, a regular telescope or binoculars would do.

[h/t Geek]

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