Micrometeoroids Influence Mercury’s Thin Atmosphere

Posted: Sep 30 2017, 4:42pm CDT | by , Updated: Sep 30 2017, 4:47pm CDT, in News | Latest Science News

 
Micrometeorides Influence Mercury’s Thin Atmosphere
Credit: NASA

New study sheds more light into the atmosphere of one of the most extreme worlds in our solar systems

Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun and is almost depleted from the atmosphere. Since the planet is so close to the sun, it is very hard to study. Only spacecrafts without humans have reached the orbit of this extreme world and the most significant of those spacecrafts was NASA’s MESSENGER that orbited Mercury between 2011 and 2015.

Until MESSNGER spacecraft arrived there, we knew very little about the planet. Mercury is still one of the least understood planets in our solar system. Now researchers have combined previously published results from NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft with the recent observations and have tried to provide more insight into the Mercury’s atmosphere. They suggest that Mercury is often struck by tiny dust particles called micrometeroids and these micrometeroid showers are making big impact on the very thin atmosphere of the planet.

Researchers have simulated the variations in meteoroid impacts in the latest effort, which exhibited surprising patterns with the occurrence of every impact. This is the first such simulation of meteoroids impacts on Mercury’s atmosphere.

“Observations by MESSENGER indicated that dust must predominantly arrive at Mercury from specific directions, so we set out to prove this with models,” said co study author Petr Pokorný from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

“We simulated meteoroids in the solar system, particularly those originating from comets and let them evolve over time.”

Modeling revealed that Mercury does have a unique weather pattern and that the planet experiences micro-meteor showers in the morning.

Mercury has the most eccentric orbit of any planet in our solar system. It completes an orbit around the sun once every 88 Earth days, while one day on Mercury last 59 Earth days, meaning that the planet at dawn spends a disproportionately long time in the path of one of the solar system's primary populations of micrometeoroids. The population, called retrograde meteoroids, travels against the flow of planetary traffic in our solar system and collide with planets – Mercury, in this case, much harder than if it was travelling in the same direction.

Meteoroids that originate from asteroids are not fast enough to create observable impacts. Only meteoroids created from two certain types of comets -Jupiter-family and Halley-type - had the speed necessary to be utilized in the models.

"The velocity of cometary meteoroids, like Halley-type, can exceed 224,000 miles per hour," said Pokorný. "Meteoroids from asteroids only impact Mercury at a fraction of that speed."

Researches believe that their initial findings will improve our understanding of the rate at which comet-based micrometeoroids impact Mercury as well as help improve the accuracy of the models of Mercury’s atmosphere.

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