Gravity Field and Internal Structure of Mercury from MESSENGER

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Science  13 Apr 2012:
Vol. 336, Issue 6078, pp. 214-217
DOI: 10.1126/science.1218809

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Mercury Inside and Out

The MESSENGER spacecraft orbiting Mercury has been in a ∼12-hour eccentric, near-polar orbit since 18 March 2011 (see the Perspective by McKinnon). Smith et al. (p. 214, published online 21 March) present the most recent determination of Mercury's gravity field, based on radio tracking of the MESSENGER spacecraft between 18 March and 23 August 2011. The results point to an interior structure that differs from those of the other terrestrial planets: the density of the planet's solid outer shell suggests the existence of a deep reservoir of high-density material, possibly an Fe-S layer. Zuber et al. (p. 217, published online 21 March) used data obtained by the MESSENGER laser altimeter through to 24 October 2011 to build a topographic map of Mercury's northern hemisphere. The map shows less variation in elevation, compared with Mars or the Moon, and its features add to the body of evidence that Mercury has sustained geophysical activity for much of its history.


Radio tracking of the MESSENGER spacecraft has provided a model of Mercury’s gravity field. In the northern hemisphere, several large gravity anomalies, including candidate mass concentrations (mascons), exceed 100 milli-Galileos (mgal). Mercury’s northern hemisphere crust is thicker at low latitudes and thinner in the polar region and shows evidence for thinning beneath some impact basins. The low-degree gravity field, combined with planetary spin parameters, yields the moment of inertia C/MR2 = 0.353 ± 0.017, where M and R are Mercury’s mass and radius, and a ratio of the moment of inertia of Mercury’s solid outer shell to that of the planet of Cm/C = 0.452 ± 0.035. A model for Mercury’s radial density distribution consistent with these results includes a solid silicate crust and mantle overlying a solid iron-sulfide layer and an iron-rich liquid outer core and perhaps a solid inner core.

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