The MESSENGER mission to Mercury was truly historic, a mission I had the good fortune to be involved in as a member of the science team. MESSENGER was the first spacecraft to orbit the innermost planet after a series of flybys. The images returned during the orbital phase and from three flybys revealed a remarkable landscape – one broken by large fault scarps, cliff-like landforms that look like giant stair-steps in the terrain. The first evidence of these fault scarps was detected in images from the flybys of Mariner 10 in the mid-1970s. However, the full scale and number of the fault scarps didn’t become clear until MESSENGER imaged the entire surface of Mercury. These fault scarps were one of my primary interests.
I had spent a lot of time before the MESSENGER mission looking at the fault scarps in the hemisphere imaged by Mariner 10, so I had a pretty good idea what to look for in MESSENGER images. Sure enough, I found fault scarps in the hemisphere not seen by Mariner 10. However, in the hemisphere imaged by Mariner 10 – in regions where I knew they were present – some prominent fault scarps weren’t showing up in the MESSENGER orbital images. It turned out that during the early orbital phase of the mission, the images that had been acquired were not optimum for detecting the fault scarps. The best images to detect the fault scarps are those taken when the sun is low on Mercury’s horizon and shadows are cast by the landforms. Pointing this out at a science team meeting, a campaign to obtain optimized images was initiated. This campaign resulted in low-sun image coverage of the surface illuminated when the sun was in the east and the west. These two near-global image mosaics facilitated the identification of the fault scarps anywhere on the planet.
MESSENGER confirmed that the population of large fault scarps was evidence Mercury had experienced global contraction as the planet’s interior cooled. This caused the crust to shrink and be pushed together, break, and thrust upward, making fault scarps up to hundreds of kilometers long and over a kilometer high. One of the key questions that could be addressed by identifying all the fault scarps is the amount of contraction Mercury experienced since the end of the period of heavy bombardment, about 4 billion years ago, before which no record would be preserved.
Being a part of a mission team doesn’t mean that everyone on the team always agrees or interprets the same data in the same way. The amount Mercury has shrunken as expressed by the population of fault scarps became a matter of debate and downright disagreement within the MESSENGER science team. Some involved in the mission, motivated by a desire to confirm predictions of a large amount of planetary contraction, cited hundreds of surface features lacking evidence of contractional faults and estimated the decrease in the planet’s diameter to be as much as 14 km (8.7 miles) or more – what I describe as a “super-contracted” Mercury. In my study, using the low-sun MESSENGER images and topographic data, only landforms with clear evidence that they are formed by contractional faults are mapped. I estimate the amount of contraction to be no more than 2 to 4 km (1.2 to 2.5 miles) at most.
The loss of heat from the interior is a driving force on rocky planets. On a multi-plate planet like Earth, most of the major faults are located along the interacting plate margins. Mercury, by contract, is a one-plate planet and could be considered the archetype of how one-plate planets express the loss of interior heat. On a one-plate planet, the interior heat loss results in contraction of the entire plate and the formation of a broadly distributed array of fault scarps as we see on Mercury.
Conventional wisdom has it that the smaller the body, the more quickly it loses its interior heat and becomes geologically inactive. However, based on my research, I conclude that Mercury has not cooled and shrunken as much as previously thought: the relatively small amount of global contraction I estimate for Mercury tells a very different story. It indicates an evolutionary path for small rocky planets where interior heat is retained and slow cooling results in less overall contraction. This slow cooling may drive very recent and even current tectonic activity on Mercury.
Dr. Thomas Watters recently published a paper in the journal Communications Earth & Environment—Nature titled “A case for limited global contraction of Mercury".