Surface Composition

Scientists have attempted to deduce the makeup of Mercury's surface from studies of the sunlight reflected from different regions. One of the differences noted between Mercury and the Moon, beyond the fact that Mercury is on average somewhat darker than the Moon, is that the range of surface brightnesses is narrower on Mercury. For example, the Moon's maria—the smooth plains visible as large dark patches to the unaided eye—are much darker than its cratered highlands, whereas Mercury's plains are at most only slightly darker than its cratered terrains. Colour differences across Mercury are also less pronounced than on the Moon, although Messenger images taken through a set of colour filters have revealed some small patches, many associated with volcanic vents, that are quite colourful. These attributes of Mercury, as i v

Part of the surface of Mercury, in a composite image formed from data collected by Mariner 10 during its first flyby in March 1974. Kuiper is the prominent impact crater in the lower right of the image. NASA/JPL/Northwestern University well as the relatively featureless visible and near-infrared spectrum of its reflected sunlight, suggest that the planet's surface is lacking in iron- and titanium-rich silicate minerals, which are darker in colour, compared with the lunar maria. In particular, Mercury's rocks may be low in oxidized iron (FeO). This leads to speculation that the planet was formed in conditions much more reducing—i.e., those in which oxygen was scarce—than other terrestrial planets.

Determination of the composition of Mercury's surface from such remote-sensing data involving reflected sunlight and the spectrum of Mercury's emitted thermal radiation is fraught with difficulties. For instance, strong radiation from the nearby Sun modifies the optical properties of mineral grains on Mercury's surface, rendering straightforward interpretations difficult. However, Messenger is equipped with several instruments, which were not aboard Mariner 10, that can measure chemical and mineral compositions directly. These instruments need to observe Mercury for long periods of time while the spacecraft remains near Mercury, so there can be no definitive results from Messenger's three early and brief flybys of the planet.

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