X-ray data from NASA's MESSENGER probe points to high levels of magnesium and sulfur on the surface of the planet Mercury, suggesting its makeup is far different from that of other planets, scientists say.
The unmanned orbiter has been beaming back data from the first planet for a year and a half. Readings from its X-ray spectrometer point to a planet whose northern volcanic plains formed through upwellings of rocks more exotic than those often found on the Earth, the Moon or Mars, said Shoshana Weider, a researcher at the Carnegie Institution of Washington.
"Before this MESSENGER mission, a lot of people assumed it was very like the Moon - it's dark, it's grey," Weider said. But while the Moon's surface formed when light materials floated to the top of an ocean of molten rock, the low level of calcium on Mercury indicates that didn't happen there.
"This gives us clues to the kind of precursor materials that accreted to form Mercury, in an extremely oxygen-poor environment," Weider said.
The concentration of sulfur on the surface is about 10 times that seen on Earth, she said. And while Mercury's iron core "makes up a huge amount of the planet," very little is found at the surface.
The northern region of volcanic plains differs significantly from the surrounding portion of Mercury, where the surface - as dated by the number of craters - is about a billion years older, Weider said.
The results were published in the latest issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research, a peer-reviewed publication of the American Geophysical Union. Weider and her co-authors studied 205 different readings from the spectrometer to produce their results.
MESSENGER - an acronym for the Mercury Surface Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging mission - has been orbiting Mercury since March 2011. It's only the second spacecraft to reach the planet and the first to circle it.
It's about 5% the size of Earth and revolves around the sun every 88 days. It rotates very slowly - once every 58 Earth days - and the surface temperature on the day side can reach 800 degrees Fahrenheit (425 C), according to NASA.
My bacteria rocks cyanoplasm!
astronomy is truly the greatest science but it is so full of crap, some of the theories about space are so absurd, i hope we can one day, in my life, reach the far away planets
Who are you to say they are absurd? You seem to imply that reaching the far away planets will definitely destroy those theories, but one cannot discount the possibility of it strengthening those theories. Science is what science is, and is limited only by ourselves.
Light Years strives to tell the stories of science research, discovery, space and education. This is your go-to place on CNN.com for today’s stories, but also for a scientific perspective on the news and everyday wonders. Come indulge your curiosity in all things space and science related, brought to you by the entire CNN family.
July 19thAtlas V launch of US DOD MUOS-2 satellite, notable for large "551" config of Atlas
Aug 3rdJapanese HTV-4 flight to ISS on cargo supply mission
Aug 14thSpaceX launch of Canadian satellite in the first launch from their new Vandenberg facility, and first launch of upgraded Falcon 9 v1.1 launch vehicle
Aug 28thDelta IV Heavy launch of NROL-65 spy satellite
SeptemberSoyuz TMA-08M flight returning Expedition 36 crew from ISS to Earth (Kazakhstan)
Sept 12thOrbital Sciences maiden flight of Cygnus cargo vehicle on Antares rocket to ISS
Sept 25thSoyuz TMA-10M flight launching Expedition 38 crew to ISS
Dec 9thSpaceX Dragon launch by Falcon 9 v1.1 on CRS-3 cargo supply mission to ISS
recurringfirst powered test flights of Scaled Composites' SpaceShipTwo commercial vehicle, to be used by Virgin Galactic for sub-orbital tourism