The geology of mercury: The view prior to the MESSENGER mission

James W. Head, Clark R. Chapman, Deborah L. Domingue, S. Edward Hawkins, William E. McClintock, Scott L. Murchie, Louise M. Prockter, Mark Robinson, Robert G. Strom, Thomas R. Watters

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Scopus citations


Mariner 10 and Earth-based observations have revealed Mercury, the innermost of the terrestrial planetary bodies, to be an exciting laboratory for the study of Solar System geological processes. Mercury is characterized by a lunar-like surface, a global magnetic field, and an interior dominated by an iron core having a radius at least three-quarters of the radius of the planet. The 45% of the surface imaged by Mariner 10 reveals some distinctive differences from the Moon, however, with major contractional fault scarps and huge expanses of moderate-albedo Cayley-like smooth plains of uncertain origin. Our current image coverage of Mercury is comparable to that of telescopic photographs of the Earth's Moon prior to the launch of Sputnik in 1957. We have no photographic images of one-half of the surface, the resolution of the images we do have is generally poor (∼1 km), and as with many lunar telescopic photographs, much of the available surface of Mercury is distorted by foreshortening due to viewing geometry, or poorly suited for geological analysis and impact-crater counting for age determinations because of high-Sun illumination conditions. Currently available topographic information is also very limited. Nonetheless, Mercury is a geological laboratory that represents (1) a planet where the presence of a huge iron core may be due to impact stripping of the crust and upper mantle, or alternatively, where formation of a huge core may have resulted in a residual mantle and crust of potentially unusual composition and structure; (2) a planet with an internal chemical and mechanical structure that provides new insights into planetary thermal history and the relative roles of conduction and convection in planetary heat loss; (3) a one-tectonic-plate planet where constraints on major interior processes can be deduced from the geology of the global tectonic system; (4) a planet where volcanic resurfacing may not have played a significant role in planetary history and internally generated volcanic resurfacing may have ceased at ∼ 3.8 Ga; (5) a planet where impact craters can be used to disentangle the fundamental roles of gravity and mean impactor velocity in determining impact crater morphology and morphometry; (6) an environment where global impact crater counts can test fundamental concepts of the distribution of impactor populations in space and time; (7) an extreme environment in which highly radar-reflective polar deposits, much more extensive than those on the Moon, can be better understood; (8) an extreme environment in which the basic processes of space weathering can be further deduced; and (9) a potential end-member in terrestrial planetary body geological evolution in which the relationships of internal and surface evolution can be clearly assessed from both a tectonic and volcanic point of view. In the half-century since the launch of Sputnik, more than 30 spacecraft have been sent to the Moon, yet only now is a second spacecraft en route to Mercury. The MESSENGER mission will address key questions about the geologic evolution of Mercury; the depth and breadth of the MESSENGER data will permit the confident reconstruction of the geological history and thermal evolution of Mercury using new imaging, topography, chemistry, mineralogy, gravity, magnetic, and environmental data.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)41-84
Number of pages44
JournalSpace Science Reviews
Issue number1-4
StatePublished - Aug 2007


  • Caloris basin
  • Mariner 10
  • Mercury
  • Planets and satellites: general

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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