Astronomers working at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Lab have found new evidence that suggests Mercury’s crust is not as thick as previously thought, according to new research set to be published in the journal Planetary Science Letters.
To make this discovery, the team analyzed data from NASA’s Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging (MESSENGER) craft. That then enabled them to mathematically calculate the width of Mercury’s crust. Such calculations revealed that the rock is likely both thinner and more dense than previously thought.
Initially, scientists believed that Mercury’s crust measured 22 miles deep. However, the recent research shows that the crust is 16 miles thick. It is likely denser than aluminum as well.
“We know what minerals usually form rocks, and we know what elements each of these minerals contain,” said lead author Michael Sori, a researcher at the University of Arizona, in a statement. “We can intelligently divide all the chemical abundances into a list of minerals. We know the densities of each of these minerals. We add them all up, and we get a map of density.”
This finding is important because it gives credence to the theory that Mercury’s crust came about through volcanic activity. Even so, that does not explain how Mercury’s core — which measures 60 percent of the planet’s volume — is bigger than both the mantle and crust.
While the jury is still out on that, the team behind the research believes that Mercury’s thinness may be the result of massive impacts that stripped away many of its rock formations. There is also a chance solar winds may have taken away parts of the crust and left the planet with a larger core.
Either way, now that scientists are aware of the planet’s crust, they can get a better idea as to how it evolved or shifted over time. Many organizations around the world plan to follow up on the findings by taking a closer look into the distant planet.
For example, the European Space Agency’s BepiColombo mission — which will launch later this year — is set to land on the world in 2025.
“It’s been a long and occasionally bumpy road to this point, and there is still plenty to do until we are ready for launch,” said Ulrich Reininghaus, the BepiColombo project manager who was not involved in the research, according to Tech Times. “But we are extremely pleased to finally move our preparations to the launch site, and are grateful to everyone who has made this possible.”