The North Pole of Mercury, seen by MESSENGER. © NASA

How rough is Mercury?

Hi there! Today I will tell you on the smoothness of the surface of Mercury. This is the opportunity for me to present The surface roughness of Mercury from the Mercury Laser Altimeter: Investigating the effects of volcanism, tectonism, and impact cratering by H.C.M. Susorney, O.S. Barnouin, C.M. Ernst and P.K. Byrne, which has recently been published in Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets. This paper uses laser altimeter data provided by the MESSENGER spacecraft, to measure the regularity of the surface in the northern hemisphere.

The surface of Mercury

I already had the opportunity to present Mercury on this blog. This is the innermost planet of the Solar System, about 3 times closer to the Sun than our Earth. This proximity makes space missions difficult, since they have to comply with the gravitational action of the Sun and with the heat of the environment. This is why Mercury has been visited only by 2 space missions: Mariner 10, which made 3 fly-bys in 1974-1975, and MESSENGER, which orbited Mercury during 4 years, between 2011 and 2015. The study of MESSENGER data is still on-going, the paper I present you today is part of this process.

Very few was known from Mercury before Mariner 10, in particular we just had no image of its surface. The 3 fly-bys of Mariner 10 gave us almost a full hemisphere, as you can see below. Only a small stripe was unknown.

Mercury seen by Mariner 10. © NASA.
Mercury seen by Mariner 10. © NASA.

And we see on this image many craters! The details have different resolutions, since this depends on the distance between Mercury and the spacecraft when a given image was taken. This map is actually a mosaic.
MESSENGER gave us full maps of Mercury (see below).

Mercury seen by MESSENGER. © USGS
Mercury seen by MESSENGER. © USGS

Something that may be not obvious on the image is a non-uniform distribution of the craters. So, Mercury is composed of cratered terrains and smooth plains, which have different roughnesses (you will understand before the end of this article).
Craters permit to date a terrain (see here), i.e. when you see an impact basin, this means that the surface has not been renewed since the impact. You can even be more accurate in dating the impact from the relaxation of the crater. However, volcanism brings new material at the surface, which covers and hides the craters.

This study focuses on the North Pole, i.e. latitudes between 45 and 90°N. This is enough to have the two kinds of terrains.

Three major geological processes

Three processes affect the surface of Mercury:

  1. Impact cratering: The early Solar System was very dangerous from this point of view, having several episodes of intense bombardments in its history. Mercury was particularly impacted because the Sun, as a big mass, tends to focus the impactors in its vicinity. It tends to rough the surface.
  2. Volcanism: In bringing new and hot material, it smoothes the surface,
  3. Tectonism: Deformation of the crust.

If Mercury had an atmosphere, then erosion would have tended to smooth the surface, as on Earth. Irrelevant here.

To measure the roughness, the authors used data from the Mercury Laser Altimeter (MLA), one of the instruments of MESSENGER.

The Mercury Laser Altimeter (MLA) instrument

This instrument measured the distance between the spacecraft and the surface of Mercury from the travel time of light emitted by MLA and reflected by the surface. Data acquired on the whole surface permitted to provide a complete topographic map of Mercury, i.e. to know the variations of its radius, detect basins and mountains,… The accuracy and the resolution of the measurements depend on the distance between the spacecraft and the surface, which had large variations, i.e. between 200 and 10,300 km. The most accurate altimeter data were for the North Pole, this is why the authors focused on it.

Roughness indicators

You need at least an indicator to quantify the roughness, i.e. a number. For that, the authors work on a given baseline on which they had data, removed a slope, and calculated the RMS (root mean square) deviation, i.e. the average squared deviation to a constant altitude, after removal of a slope. When you are on an inclined plane, then your altitude is not constant, but the plane is smooth anyway. This is why you remove the slope.

But wait a minute: if you are climbing a hill, and you calculate the slope over 10 meters, you have the slope you are climbing… But if you calculate it over 10 km, then you will go past the summit, and the slope will not be the same, while the summit will affect the RMS deviation, i.e. the roughness. This means that the roughness depends on the length of your baseline.

This is something interesting, which should be quantified as well. For this, the authors used the Hurst exponent H, such that ν(L) = ν0LH, where L is the length of the baseline, and ν the standard deviation. Of course, the data show that this relation is not exact, but we can say it works pretty well. H is determined in fitting the relation to the data.


To summarize the results:

  • Smooth plains: H = 0.88±0.01,
  • Cratered terrains: H = 0.95±0.01.

The authors allowed the baseline to vary between 500 m and 250 km. The definition of the Hurst exponent works well for baselines up to 1.5 km. But for any baseline, the results show a bimodal distribution, i.e. two kinds of terrains, which are smooth plains and cratered terrains.

It is tempting to compare Mercury to the Moon, and actually the results are consistent for cratered terrains. However, the lunar Maria seem to have a slightly smaller Hurst exponent.

To know more

That’s it for today! The next mission to Mercury will be Bepi-Colombo, scheduled for launch in 2018 and for orbital insertion in 2025. Meanwhile, please do not forget to comment. You can also subscribe to the RSS feed, and follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

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