Planet Mercury and giant collisions

Full-color image of from first MESSENGER flyby
Mercury’s sun-lit side from first MESSENGER flyby (credit: Wikipedia)

Mercury is quite different from the other three Terrestrial Planets, having a significantly higher density. So it must have a considerably larger metallic core than the others – estimated to make up about 70% of Mercury’s mass – and therefore has a far thinner silicate mantle. The other large body in the Inner Solar System, our Moon, is the opposite, having the greatest proportion of silicate mantle and a small core.

The presently favoured explanation for the Moon’s anomalous mass distribution is that it resulted from a giant collision between the proto-Earth and a Mars-sized planetary body. Moreover, planetary theorists have been postulating around 20 planetary ‘embryos’ in the most of which accreted to form Venus and Earth, the final terrestrial event being the Moon-forming collision, with smaller Mars and Mercury having been derived from the two remaining such bodies. For Mercury to have such an anomalously large metallic core has invited mega-collision as a possible cause, but with such a high energy that much of its original complement of silicate mantle failed to fall back after the event. Two planetary scientists from the Universities of Arizona, USA, and Berne, Switzerland, have modelled various scenarios for such an origin of the Sun’s closest companion (Asphaug, E. & Reuffer, A. 2014. Mercury and other iron-rich planetary bodies as relics of inefficient accretion. Nature Geoscience, published online, doi: 10.1038/NGEO2189).

Their favoured mechanism is what they term ‘hit-and-run’ collisions in the early Inner Solar System. In the case of Mercury, that may have been with a larger target planet that survived intact while proto-Mercury was blasted apart to lose much of it mantle on re-accretion. To survive eventual accretion into a larger planet the left-overs had to have ended up in an orbit that avoided further collisions. Maybe Mars had the same kind of lucky escape but one that left it with a greater proportion of silicates.

One possible scenario is that proto-Mercury was indeed the body that started the clock of the Earth-Moon system through a giant impact. Yet no-one will be satisfied with a simulation and some statistics. Only detailed geochemistry of returned samples can take us any further. The supposed Martian meteorites seem not to be compatible with such a model; at least one would expect there to have been a considerable stir in planetary-science circles if they were. For Mercury, it will be a long wait for a resolution by geochemists, probably yet to be conceived.

Galactic controls

English: Artist's conception of the Milky Way ...
Artists impression of the Milky Way viewed along its axis. Image via Wikipedia

Palaeoclimatologists are quite content that an important element in controlling the vagaries of climate is due to gravitational forces that cyclically perturb Earth’s orbit, it axial tilt and the way the axis of rotation wobbles in a similar manner to that of a gyroscope. The predictions about this by James Croll in the late 19th century, which were quantified by Milutin Milankovich during his incarceration during World War I, triumphed when the predicted periods of change were found in deep-sea floor sediment records in 1972. Authors of ideas that link Earth system changes  to the progress of the Solar system through the Milky Way galaxy haven’t had the same accolades. One of the first to suggest a galactic link was Joe Steiner (Steiner, J. 1967. The sequence of geological events and the dynamics of the Milky Way Galaxy. Journal of the  Geological Society of  Australia, v.  14, p. 99–132.) but his work is rarely credited.

There has been an upsurge of interest in the last decade or so. In a recent issue of New Scientist Stephen Battersby reviews what galactic ‘forcings’ may have accomplished during the 4.5 billion-year history of our world (Battersby, S. 2011. Earth odyssey. New Scientist, v. 212 (3 December issue), p. 42-45). Having formed probably much closer to the galactic centre than its current position the Solar System has drifted, perhaps even ‘surfed’ gravitationally, outwards to reach its present ‘suburban’ position in one of the spiral arms. There are regularities to the now stabilised orbital movements: once every 200 million years the Solar System completes a full orbit; this orbit wobbles across the hypothetical plane of the galactic disc by as much as 200 light years, moving with and against the Milky Way’s cosmic motion. It has proved impossible so far to detect any sign of the orbital 200 Ma periodicity in events on the Earth, and most attention has centred on the wobble.

Steiner suggested that this motion may have crossed different polarities of the galactic magnetic field, perhaps triggering the periodicity of geomagnetic  changes in polarity, but this now seems unlikely. However, his suggestion that glacial epochs, such as those in the Palaeo- and Neoproterozoic, at the end of the Palaeozoic Era and at present, may have resulted from the Solar System’s passage through dust and gas banding in the Milky Way continues to have its attractions (e.g. Pavlov, A.A. et al. 2005. Passing through a giant molecular cloud: “Snowball” glaciations produced by interstellar dust, Geophysical Research Letters, v. 32, p. L03705). The direction of motion relative to the Milky Way’s cosmic drift governs the exposure to cosmic rays that result from a kind of ‘bow-shock’ ahead of the galaxy

Stellar motion through the Milky Way is semi-independent so that from time to time the Solar System may have been sufficiently close to regions of dense dust and gas that nurture the formation of super-massive stars. These huge objects quickly evolve to end in supernovae, proximity to which would have exposed life to ‘hard’ X- and  γ-rays and would be trigger for mass extinction, for instance by accompanying cosmic rays in destroying the ozone protection from UV radiation from the Sun.

The dynamism of the Earth and the resulting complexity of its surface processes makes it a poor place to look for physical signs of galactic influences. No so the Moon: for almost 4.5 billion years it has been a passive receptor for virtually anything that the cosmos could fling at it, and so geologically inert that its surface layers may well preserve a complete ‘stratigraphic’ record of all kinds of process. Should lunar landings with geological capabilities once more prove economically possible, or politically useful, that hidden history could be read.