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Studies[change | change source]
Ancient astronomers[change | change source]
The earliest known recorded observations of Mercury are from the Mul.Apin tablets. These observations were most likely made by an Assyrian astronomer around the 14th century BC. The cuneiform name used to designate Mercury on the Mul.Apin tablets is transcribed as Udu.Idim.Gu\u4.Ud ("the jumping planet").[b] Babylonian records of Mercury date back to the 1st millennium BC. The Babylonians called the planet Nabu after the messenger to the gods in their mythology.
The ancient Greeks of Hesiod's time called Mercury Στίλβων (Stilbon), meaning "the gleaming", and Ἑρμάων (Hermaon). Later Greeks called the planet Apollo when it was visible in the morning sky, and Hermes when visible in the evening. Around the 4th century BC, however, Greek astronomers came to understand that Apollo and Hermes both referred to the same body. The Romans named the planet after the fast Roman messenger god, Mercury (Latin Mercurius) which they equated with the Greek Hermes, because it moves across the sky faster than any other planet in the solar system. The Roman-Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy wrote about the possibility of planetary transits across the face of the Sun in his work Planetary Hypotheses. He suggested that no transits had been observed either because planets such as Mercury were too small to see, or because the transits were too infrequent.
In ancient China, Mercury was known as Chen Xing (辰星), the Hour Star. It was associated with the direction north and the phase of water in the Wu Xing. Hindu mythology used the name Budha for Mercury, and this god was thought to preside over Wednesday. The god Odin (or Woden) of Germanic paganism was associated with the planet Mercury and Wednesday. The Maya may have represented Mercury as an owl (or possibly four owls; two for the morning aspect and two for the evening) that served as a messenger to the underworld.
In ancient Indian astronomy, the Surya Siddhanta, an Indian astronomical text of the 5th century, estimates the diameter of Mercury as 3,008 miles, an error of less than 1% from the currently accepted diameter of 3,032 miles. However, this estimate was based upon an inaccurate guess of the planet's angular diameter as 3.0 arcminutes.
In medieval Islamic astronomy, the Andalusian astronomer Abū Ishāq Ibrāhīm al-Zarqālī in the 11th century described the deferent of Mercury's geocentric orbit as being oval, like an egg or a pignon, although this insight did not influence his astronomical theory or his astronomical calculations. In the 12th century, Ibn Bajjah observed "two planets as black spots on the face of the Sun," which was later suggested as the transit of Mercury and/or Venus by the Maragha astronomer Qotb al-Din Shirazi in the 13th century. (Note that most such medieval reports of transits were later taken as observations of sunspots.)
In India, the Kerala school astronomer Nilakantha Somayaji in the 15th century developed a planetary model in which Mercury orbits the Sun, which in turn orbits the Earth, similar to the Tychonic system later proposed by Tycho Brahe in the late 16th century.
Ground-based telescopic research[change | change source]
The first telescopic observations of Mercury were made by Galileo in the early 17th century. Although he observed phases when he looked at Venus, his telescope was not powerful enough to see the phases of Mercury. In 1631 Pierre Gassendi made the first telescopic observations of the transit of a planet across the Sun when he saw a transit of Mercury predicted by Johannes Kepler. In 1639 Giovanni Zupi used a telescope to discover that the planet had orbital phases similar to Venus and the Moon. The observation demonstrated conclusively that Mercury orbited around the Sun.
A very rare event in astronomy is the passage of one planet in front of another (occultation), as seen from Earth. Mercury and Venus occult each other every few centuries, and the event of May 28, 1737 is the only one historically observed, having been seen by John Bevis at the Royal Greenwich Observatory. The next occultation of Mercury by Venus will be on December 3, 2133.
The difficulties inherent in observing Mercury mean that it has been far less studied than the other planets. In 1800 Johann Schröter made observations of surface features, claiming to have observed 20 km high mountains. Friedrich Bessel used Schröter's drawings to erroneously estimate the rotation period as 24 hours and an axial tilt of 70°. In the 1880s Giovanni Schiaparelli mapped the planet more accurately, and suggested that Mercury’s rotational period was 88 days, the same as its orbital period due to tidal locking. This phenomenon is known as synchronous rotation and is shown by Earth’s Moon. The effort to map the surface of Mercury was continued by Eugenios Antoniadi, who published a book in 1934 that included both maps and his own observations. Many of the planet's surface features, particularly the albedo features, take their names from Antoniadi's map.
In June 1962 Soviet scientists at the Institute of Radio-engineering and Electronics of the USSR Academy of Sciences lead by Vladimir Kotelnikov became first to bounce radar signal off Mercury and receive it, starting radar observations of the planet. Three years later radar observations by Americans Gordon Pettengill and R. Dyce using 300-meter Arecibo Observatory radio telescope in Puerto Rico showed conclusively that the planet’s rotational period was about 59 days. The theory that Mercury’s rotation was synchronous had become widely held, and it was a surprise to astronomers when these radio observations were announced. If Mercury were tidally locked, its dark face would be extremely cold, but measurements of radio emission revealed that it was much hotter than expected. Astronomers were reluctant to drop the synchronous rotation theory and proposed alternative mechanisms such as powerful heat-distributing winds to explain the observations.
Italian astronomer Giuseppe Colombo noted that the rotation value was about two-thirds of Mercury’s orbital period, and proposed that the planet’s orbital and rotational periods were locked into a 3:2 rather than a 1:1 resonance. Data from Mariner 10 subsequently confirmed this view. This means that Schiaparelli's and Antoniadi's maps were not "wrong". Instead, the astronomers saw the same features during every second orbit and recorded them, but disregarded those seen in the meantime, when Mercury's other face was toward the Sun, since the orbital geometry meant that these observations were made under poor viewing conditions.
Ground-based observations did not shed much further light on the innermost planet, and it was not until the first space probe flew past Mercury that many of its most fundamental properties became known. However, recent technological advances have led to improved ground-based observations. In 2000, high-resolution lucky imaging observations were conducted by the Mount Wilson Observatory 1.5 meter Template:Dp. They provided the first views that resolved surface features on the parts of Mercury which were not imaged in the Mariner mission. Later imaging has shown evidence of a huge double-ringed impact basin even larger than the Caloris Basin in the non-Mariner-imaged hemisphere. It has informally been dubbed the Skinakas Basin. Most of the planet has been mapped by the Arecibo radar telescope, with 5 km resolution, including polar deposits in shadowed craters of what may be water ice.
Research with space probes[change | change source]
Reaching Mercury from Earth poses significant technical challenges, since the planet orbits so much closer to the Sun than does the Earth. A Mercury-bound spacecraft launched from Earth must travel over 91 million kilometers into the Sun’s gravitational potential well. Mercury has an orbital speed of 48 km/s, while Earth’s orbital speed is 30 km/s. Thus the spacecraft must make a large change in velocity (delta-v) to enter a Hohmann transfer orbit that passes near Mercury, as compared to the delta-v required for other planetary missions.
The potential energy liberated by moving down the Sun’s potential well becomes kinetic energy; requiring another large delta-v change to do anything other than rapidly pass by Mercury. To land safely or enter a stable orbit the spacecraft would rely entirely on rocket motors. Aerobraking is ruled out because the planet has very little atmosphere. A trip to Mercury requires more rocket fuel than that required to escape the Solar System completely. As a result, only two space probes have visited the planet so far. A proposed alternative approach would use a solar sail to attain a Mercury-synchronous orbit around the Sun.
Mariner 10[change | change source]
The first spacecraft to visit Mercury was NASA’s Mariner 10 (1974–75). The spacecraft used the gravity of Venus to adjust its orbital velocity so that it could approach Mercury, making it both the first spacecraft to use this gravitational “slingshot” effect and the first NASA mission to visit multiple planets. Mariner 10 provided the first close-up images of Mercury’s surface, which immediately showed its heavily cratered nature, and revealed many other types of geological features, such as the giant scarps which were later ascribed to the effect of the planet shrinking slightly as its iron core cools. Unfortunately, due to the length of Mariner 10's orbital period, the same face of the planet was lit at each of Mariner 10’s close approaches. This made observation of both sides of the planet impossible, and resulted in the mapping of less than 45% of the planet’s surface.
On March 27, 1974, two days before its first flyby of Mercury, Mariner 10's instruments began registering large amounts of unexpected ultraviolet radiation near Mercury. This led to the tentative identification of Mercury's moon. Shortly afterward, the source of the excess UV was identified as the star 31 Crateris, and Mercury's moon passed into astronomy's history books as a footnote.
The spacecraft made three close approaches to Mercury, the closest of which took it to within 327 km of the surface. At the first close approach, instruments detected a magnetic field, to the great surprise of planetary geologists—Mercury’s rotation was expected to be much too slow to generate a significant dynamo effect. The second close approach was primarily used for imaging, but at the third approach, extensive magnetic data were obtained. The data revealed that the planet’s magnetic field is much like the Earth’s, which deflects the solar wind around the planet. However, the origin of Mercury’s magnetic field is still the subject of several competing theories.
On March 24, 1975, just eight days after its final close approach, Mariner 10 ran out of fuel. Since its orbit could no longer be accurately controlled, mission controllers instructed the probe to shut down. Mariner 10 is thought to be still orbiting the Sun, passing close to Mercury every few months.
MESSENGER[change | change source]
A second NASA mission to Mercury, named MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging), was launched on August 3, 2004, from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard a Boeing Delta 2 rocket. It made a fly-by of the Earth in August 2005, and of Venus in October 2006 and June 2007 to place it onto the correct trajectory to reach an orbit around Mercury. A first fly-by of Mercury occurred on January 14, 2008, a second on October 6, 2008, and a third on September 29, 2009. Most of the hemisphere not imaged by Mariner 10 has been mapped during these fly-bys. The probe will then enter an elliptical orbit around the planet in March 2011; the nominal mapping mission is one terrestrial year.
The mission is designed to clear up six key issues: Mercury’s high density, its geological history, the nature of its magnetic field, the structure of its core, whether it has ice at its poles, and where its tenuous atmosphere comes from. To this end, the probe is carrying imaging devices which will gather much higher resolution images of much more of the planet than Mariner 10, assorted spectrometers to determine abundances of elements in the crust, and magnetometers and devices to measure velocities of charged particles. Detailed measurements of tiny changes in the probe’s velocity as it orbits will be used to infer details of the planet’s interior structure.
BepiColombo[change | change source]
The European Space Agency is planning a joint mission with Japan called BepiColombo, which will orbit Mercury with two probes: one to map the planet and the other to study its magnetosphere. Once launched, the spacecraft bus is expected to reach Mercury in 2019. The bus will release a magnetometer probe into an elliptical orbit, then chemical rockets will fire to deposit the mapper probe into a circular orbit. Both probes will operate for a terrestrial year. The mapper probe will carry an array of spectrometers similar to those on MESSENGER, and will study the planet at many different wavelengths including infrared, ultraviolet, X-ray and gamma ray.
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