If an explorer were to step onto the surface of Mercury, he would discover a world resembling lunar terrain. Mercury's rolling, dust-covered hills have been eroded from the constant bombardment of meteorites. Fault-cliffs rise for several kilometers in height and extend for hundreds of kilometers. Craters dot the surface. The explorer would notice that the Sun appears two and a half times larger than on Earth; however, the sky is always black because Mercury has virtually no atmosphere to cause scattering of light. As the explorer gazes out into space, he might see two bright stars. One appearing as cream colored Venus and the other as blue colored Earth.
Until Mariner 10, little was known about Mercury because of the difficulty in observing it from Earth telescopes. At maximum elongation it is only 28 degrees from the Sun as seen from Earth. Because of this, it can only be viewed during daylight hours or just prior to sunrise or after sunset. When observed at dawn or dusk, Mercury is so low on the horizon that the light must pass through 10 times the amount of Earth's atmosphere than it would if Mercury was directly overhead.
During the 1880's, Giovanni Schiaparelli drew a sketch showing faint features on Mercury. He determined that Mercury must be tidally locked to the Sun, just as the Moon is tidally locked to Earth. In 1962, radio astronomers looked at radio emissions from Mercury and determined that the dark side was too warm to be tidally locked. It was expected to be much colder if it always faced away from the Sun. In 1965, Pettengill and Dyce determined Mercury's period of rotation to be 59 +- 5 days based upon radar observations. Later in 1971, Goldstein refined the rotation period to be 58.65 +- 0.25 days using radar observations. After close observation by the Mariner 10 spacecraft, the period was determined to be 58.646 +- 0.005 days.
Although Mercury is not tidally locked to the Sun, its rotational period is tidally coupled to its orbital period. Mercury rotates one and a half times during each orbit. Because of this 3:2 resonance, a day on Mercury (sun rise to sun rise) is 176 Earth days long as shown by the following diagram.
During Mercury's distant past, its period of rotation may have been faster. Scientists speculate that its rotation could have been as rapid as 8 hours, but over millions of years it was slowly despun by solar tides. A model of this process shows that such a despinning would take 109 years and would have raised the interior temperature by 100 degrees Kelvin.
Most of the scientific findings about Mercury comes from the Mariner 10 spacecraft which was launched on November 3, 1973. It flew past the planet on March 29, 1974 at a distance of 705 kilometers from the surface. On September 21, 1974 it flew past Mercury for the second time and on March 16, 1975 for the third time. During these visits, over 2,700 pictures were taken, covering 45% of Mercury's surface. Up until this time, scientists did not suspect that Mercury would have a magnetic field. They thought that because Mercury is small, its core would have solidified long ago. The presence of a magnetic field indicates that a planet has an iron core that is at least partially molten. Magnetic fields are generated from the rotation of a conductive molten core and is known as the dynamo effect.
Mariner 10 showed that Mercury has a magnetic field that is 1% as strong as Earth's. This magnet field is inclined 7 degrees to Mercury's axis of rotation and produces a magnetosphere around the planet. The source of the magnetic field is unknown. It might be produced from a partially molten iron core in the planet's interior. Another source of the field might be from remnant magnetization of iron-bearing rocks which were magnetized when the planet had a strong magnetic field during its younger years. As the planet cooled and solidified remnant magnetization was retained.
Even before Mariner 10, Mercury was known to have a high density. Its density is 5.44 g/cm3 which is comparable to Earth's 5.52g/cm3 density. In an uncompressed state, Mercury's density is 5.5 g/cm3 where Earth's is only 4.0 g/cm3. This high density indicates that the planet is 60 to 70 percent by weight metal, and 30 percent by weight silicate. This gives a core radius of 75% of the planet radius and a core volume of 42% of the planet's volume.
Mercury Statistics Mass (kg) 3.303e+23 Mass (Earth = 1) 5.5271e-02 Equatorial radius (km) 2,439.7 Equatorial radius (Earth = 1) 3.8252e-01 Mean density (gm/cm^3) 5.42 Mean distance from the Sun (km) 57,910,000 Mean distance from the Sun (Earth = 1) 0.3871 Rotational period (days) 58.6462 Orbital period (days) 87.969 Mean orbital velocity (km/sec) 47.88 Orbital eccentricity 0.2056 Tilt of axis (degrees) 0.00 Orbital inclination (degrees) 7.004 Equatorial surface gravity (m/sec^2) 2.78 Equatorial escape velocity (km/sec) 4.25 Visual geometric albedo 0.10 Magnitude (Vo) -1.9 Mean surface temperature 179°C Maximum surface temperature 427°C Minimum surface temperature -173°C Atmospheric composition