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EPSC 2018: Early birth and strange chemistry – Mercury studies reveal an intriguing target for BepiColombo

18 Sep 2018, 10:53 UTC
EPSC 2018: Early birth and strange chemistry – Mercury studies reveal an intriguing target for BepiColombo

Early birth and strange chemistry: Mercury studies reveal an intriguing target for BepiColombo
A month before the planned launch of the joint ESA-JAXA BepiColombo mission to Mercury, two new studies shed light on when the innermost planet formed and the puzzle of its chemical composition. The findings will be presented by Bastien Brugger and Thomas Ronnet at the European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC) 2018 in Berlin.
Mercury is the least-studied of the terrestrial planets and is something of an anomaly compared to Venus, Earth and Mars. It is very small, very dense, has an oversized molten core, and formed under chemical conditions that mean it contains much less oxidized material than its neighbouring planets.
Research by a team at the University of Aix Marseille suggests that two factors may help explain why Mercury is so strange. Firstly, the planet may have formed very early in the Solar System’s history from condensed vapour from planetesimals. Secondly, the distribution of sulphur and silicon within Mercury’s mantle and iron core may be different than previously thought.
“We think that very early in the Solar System, planetesimals in the innermost region of the Solar System could have formed from reprocessed material that was vaporized due to the extreme temperature there and subsequently recondensed,” said Ronnet. “In addition, we are able to rule out a scenario where Mercury formed from a pile-up of planetesimals coming from further out in the Solar System since, in this case, Mercury would contain more oxidized material than we actually find.”
Previous studies have suggested that Mercury is very rich in iron, but contains more sulphur than should be available in the material from which the bulk of the Solar System formed.
Brugger ran computer simulations of Mercury’s interior with a large range of densities and compositions and compared the results with gravity data gathered by the MESSENGER mission.
“We found that silicon may be the key alloying element in Mercury’s core, instead of sulphur, the previous main suspect,” said Brugger. “By having a much richer silicon content in the core and less sulphur, our models matched both the MESSENGER observations and the latest laboratory experiments on the composition of Mercury. This could solve the problem of why Mercury seemed to have too much sulphur compared to the rest of the Solar System.”
The results also suggest that Mercury has a dense mantle that may contain substantial amounts of iron. To confirm this, Brugger and his colleagues will need further observations from future missions.
“MESSENGER did not detect iron in its analysis of Mercury’s surface composition, but this may be due to the spectral channels of its instrumentation. With the launch of BepiColombo, we will have a whole new suite of instruments to investigate this mysterious planet and try to understand its structure and origins,” said Brugger.
BepiColombo is Europe’s first mission to Mercury. It is a joint endeavour between ESA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, JAXA, and consists of two scientific orbiters: ESA’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter and JAXA’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter. They will be carried on a seven year journey to the innermost planet by the Mercury Transfer Module, using a combination of ion propulsion and gravity assist flybys at Earth, Venus and Mercury. The mission will study all aspects of Mercury, building on the achievements of MESSENGER to provide the best understanding of the Solar System’s innermost planet to date.
BepiColombo approaching Mercury. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab, NASA/JPL

Interior of Mercury. Credit: Brugger/ University of Aix Marseille/NASA/JPL/JHU-APL

False colour image of Mercury to enhance the chemical, mineralogical, and physical differences between the rocks that make up Mercury’s surface. Credit: NASA/JHU-APL/Carnegie Institution of Washington 

Science Contacts
Bastien Brugger
University of Aix Marseille
Thomas Ronnet
University of Aix Marseille
Media Contacts
Anita Heward
Europlanet/EPSC 2018 Communications Officer
Livia Giacomini
Europlanet/EPSC 2018 Communications Officer
Notes for Editors
EPSC 2018
The European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC) 2018 (www.epsc2018.eu) is taking place at the Technische Universität (TU) Berlin, from Sunday 16 to Friday 21 September 2018. EPSC is the major European annual meeting on planetary science. Around 1000 scientists from Europe and around the world will attend EPSC 2018 and will give around 1,250 oral and poster presentations about the latest results on our own Solar System and planets orbiting other stars.
Details of the Congress and a full schedule of EPSC 2018 scientific sessions and events can be found at the official website: http://www.epsc2018.eu/
About Europlanet
Europlanet provides Europe’s planetary science community with a platform to exchange ideas and personnel, share research tools, data and facilities, define key science goals for the future, and engage stakeholders, policy makers and European citizens with planetary science. Europlanet is the parent organisation of the European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC).
The Europlanet 2020 Research Infrastructure (RI) has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 654208 to provide access to state-of-the-art research facilities across the European Research Area and a mechanism to coordinate Europe’s planetary science community. The project builds on a €2 million Framework 6 Coordination Action and €6 million Framework 7 Research Infrastructure funded by the European Commission.
Europlanet outreach website: http://www.europlanet-eu.org/
Europlanet project website: www.europlanet-2020-ri.eu
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