A NASA probe by the name of Messenger may have crashed into Mercury last week, but the data it collected while it skirted the surface is providing scientists with a treasure chest of fascinating information about the planet, as well as new mysteries about how its magnetic field formed. The data collected from the suicide probe, when it was as little as under ten miles from the surface, has given the researchers the approximate age of Mercury’s magnetic field- between 3.7 and 3.9 billion years. It’s a known fact of the scientific community that Earth’s magnetic field is very similar, only about a hundred times stronger. Scientists thus hope that by learning about Mercury’s magnetic field, we can find out more about our own and its formation.
Our planet and the first “rock” from the sun (as well as the smallest planet) are the only two in the solar system that currently have magnetic fields, although it is theorized that at one time, Mars also had one. Earth and Mercury also share roughly the same age, just over 4.5 billion years. Mercury’s magnetic field is a direct result of its liquid iron core cooling, but beyond that, scientists know very little about which stage of the cooling process brought about the field. The new data also clashes with earlier findings. As can be imagined, this is causing quite a stir in the scientific community.
The “Suicide Probe” Leaves a Lasting Legacy:
The suicide probe is something of a hero in this story. It originally set out in 2004 and didn’t reach its destination until four years later. It began providing useful data once it reached a stable orbit in 2011. During the fall of 2014, and in the year 2015, the NASA Messenger provided its best data, as it was routinely flown at treacherously low altitudes. The game of not getting too close proved very risky, but ultimately brought great reward. Messenger now resides in a relatively small crater that it carved out for itself in the surface of the planet. Unfortunately, we will likely never know what its final images looked like, as the craft crashed on the dark side of the planet.
More on Mercury and the suicide probe here.