Why You Should Care About Volcanoes on Mercury

Scientists' understanding of Mercury, the planet closest to the Sun, changed dramatically this past week, thanks to images and data from the satellite Messenger. In September of last year, the satellite flew by Mercury three times, but the data was not released until last week—in three studies published in the journal "Science." "I think the biggest surprise for the community is that the planet is turning out to be much more dynamic than people appreciated," Sean C. Solomon, the principle investigator for the Messenger mission, told The New York Times

But why should anyone care about the makeup of a planet 36 million miles from Earth? Big Think spoke today with Dr. Louise Prockter, co-author of one of the studies, who explained exactly what these findings mean and why we should be excited about them.

One of the main findings was that volcanoes were active on Mercury's surface much more recently than previously thought. Based on results from the Mariner 10 spacecraft in the 1970's, scientists weren't even sure that there was any volcanic activity on Mercury, said Prockter. "It was ambiguous whether smooth plains on the surface were volcanic or were the result of high velocity impacts. From Messenger flyby data over the last couple of years, we were able to tell that volcanism had been widespread across the planet, but we didn’t know how long it had persisted. Most people thought it ended about 3.8 billion years ago."

The most recent Messenger data suggests that volcanism lasted almost 2 billion years longer than previously thought, lasting well into the planet's middle age, says Prockter. "This means that it wasn’t as efficient at getting rid of heat from its rocky mantle as we had previous thought, so the mantle probably wasn’t vigorously convecting. This is surprising for such a small planet – the surface to volume ratio for Mercury is much smaller than for a larger planet, and we would expect it to kick out its excess heat very efficiently. Mercury has an anomalously large core compared to its mantle, and there is a hypothesis that it used to be larger, but the mantle was largely stripped off by a huge impact, leaving a much thinner mantle behind. This mantle may not have been thick enough to undergo rigorous convection, and so Mercury may have trapped enough heat to enable volcanism to continue for millenia (or billenia!)."

Ultimately what's exciting about this data is that it sheds new light on the search for life outside our solar system. By broadening scientists' understanding about planets in our solar system, they help explain why planets do or do not develop conditions suitable for life, and that information helps them to understand planets around other stars:

"The solar system is like a huge laboratory, where each planet is similar, but different enough that we can learn more about the whole system. For example, Venus shows us how a terrestrial planet develops when it is large, but has a dense atmosphere; Mars shows us how a planet can have conditions for life, but then not have it develop as it has on Earth (or at all), and Mercury shows us what happens when we have a terrestrial planet that forms very close to the Sun, and which has an anomalously large core. So what we learn about Mercury helps us understand how the Earth was able to become habitable, and will help put constraints on habitable zones around other planets."

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

Dead – yes, dead – tardigrade found beneath Antarctica

A completely unexpected discovery beneath the ice.

(Goldstein Lab/Wkikpedia/Tigerspaws/Big Think)
Surprising Science
  • Scientists find remains of a tardigrade and crustaceans in a deep, frozen Antarctic lake.
  • The creatures' origin is unknown, and further study is ongoing.
  • Biology speaks up about Antarctica's history.
Keep reading Show less

If you want to spot a narcissist, look at the eyebrows

Bushier eyebrows are associated with higher levels of narcissism, according to new research.

Big Think illustration / Actor Peter Gallagher attends the 24th and final 'A Night at Sardi's' to benefit the Alzheimer's Association at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 9, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
  • Science has provided an excellent clue for identifying the narcissists among us.
  • Eyebrows are crucial to recognizing identities.
  • The study provides insight into how we process faces and our latent ability to detect toxic people.
Keep reading Show less

Why are women more religious than men? Because men are more willing to take risks.

It's one factor that can help explain the religiosity gap.

Photo credit: Alina Strong on Unsplash
Culture & Religion
  • Sociologists have long observed a gap between the religiosity of men and women.
  • A recent study used data from several national surveys to compare religiosity, risk-taking preferences and demographic information among more than 20,000 American adolescents.
  • The results suggest that risk-taking preferences might partly explain the gender differences in religiosity.
Keep reading Show less