Mercury May Have Harbored an Ancient Magma Ocean |
By analyzing Mercury’s rocky surface, scientists have been able to partially reconstruct the planet’s history over billions of years. Now, drawing upon the chemical composition of rock features on the planet’s surface, scientists at MIT have proposed that Mercury may have harbored a large, roiling ocean of magma very early in its history, shortly after its formation about 4.5 billion years ago.
The scientists analyzed data gathered by MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging), a NASA probe that has orbited the planet since March 2011. Later that year, a group of scientists analyzed X-ray fluorescence data from the probe, and identified two distinct compositions of rocks on the planet’s surface. The discovery unearthed a planetary puzzle: What geological processes could have given rise to such distinct surface compositions?
To answer that question, the MIT team used the compositional data to recreate the two rock types in the lab, and subjected each synthetic rock to high temperatures and pressures to simulate various geological processes. From their experiments, the scientists came up with only one phenomenon to explain the two compositions: a vast magma ocean that created two different layers of crystals, solidified, then eventually remelted into magma that then erupted onto Mercury’s surface.
"The thing that’s really amazing on Mercury is, this didn’t happen yesterday," says Timothy Grove, a professor of geology at MIT. "The crust is probably more than 4 billion years old, so this magma ocean is a really ancient feature."