New research provides more insight into the geological history of the smallest planet in our solar system.
Mercury is the smallest of the eight planets in our solar system. The planet is closest to the sun and completes an orbit around the sun faster than any other planet.
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Compared to other planets, Mercury is a fairly quiet place today. There are no strong winds blowing over the planet. No liquid water is flowing across its surface and no volcanoes are spewing lava today. But this has not always been the case. The planet was rife with volcanic activity in the past and a new research suggests that most of the volcanic activity likely ended about 3.5 billion years ago.
New research by North Carolina State University attempts to determine the ages of the volcanic deposits spreading across Mercury’s surface and provides more insight into the geological history of the planet.
Experts say there are two types of volcanic activity: effusive and explosive. Explosive volcanism happens when gas and volcanic ashes are discharged violently from a volcano and cause to send debris many of miles into the air. Effusive eruption, on the other hand, is a type of volcanic eruption in which lava steadily pours out of volcano and slowly flows over the landscape. This lava flow on Mercury would have been very different from volcanic activity on Earth and it should have played a major role in shaping planet. Determining the ages of those deposits can give important clues on the geological evolution of the planet.
Unfortunately, there are no physical samples available that could be used for radioactive dating - a technique which helps date material like rocks based on the radioactive isotopes present in the sample.
However, NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft orbited Mercury for almost four years and beamed back the several detailed images and data from the planet. Researchers have used these images to identify the number and size of craters on planet’s surface and established mathematical models and determined the absolute ages for effusive volcanic deposits on Mercury. Analysis showed that major volcanism on Mercury stopped around 3.5 billion years ago. It also gives researchers hints of what happens to rocky planets when they cool and contract.
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"These new results validate 40-year-old predictions about global cooling and contraction shutting off volcanism,” said planetary geologist Paul Byrne from NC State. “Now that we can account for observations of the volcanic and tectonic properties of Mercury, we have a consistent story for its geological formation and evolution, as well as new insight into what happens when planetary bodies cool and contract."