5 Cratered Facts About Mercury

An enhanced-color composite image of Mercury's Caloris basin. Lavas appear orange, and blue areas are likely the original basin floor. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington


by Alex Carter

Mercury is the closest planet to the sun, and you would be forgiven for thinking it’s just a boring lump of rock. After all, there’s nothing interesting on it like aliens or places to drink. Still, Mercury is probably a more interesting place than you think...


Although you would be forgiven for thinking Mercury, being the closest planet to the Sun, is one of the hottest places in the solar system, it in fact is subject to enormous temperature fluctuations. Some regions reach 800°F, but without an atmosphere to retain heat, Mercury’s poles and nightside of the planet plunge well below even the coldest temperatures recorded on Earth. With some regions never getting above -279°F, conditions are perfect for ice to form. Mercury’s regolith is home to possibly a trillion tons of ice, which would make it one of the wettest places in the solar system.

Fitting, then, that the ancient Chinese called it the Water Star.


In the 19th century, scientists were smug in the knowledge that they knew everything there was to know. There were of course a couple of curiosities that they could not understand, one being the precession in the orbit of Mercury. That is to say, Mercury goes around the Sun in an ellipse rather than in a circle, and the ellipse changed the direction it was pointing from time to time. It was thought that there must be a new planet between Mercury and the sun that was changing its orbit—the planet Vulcan. But despite trying, the planet could not be observed.

Albert Einstein eventually disproved the theory of Vulcan via the general theory of relativity. Rather than looking for an external cause, Einstein showed that Mercury was doing exactly what it should do, and that gravity was just acting in ways no one had known it could. Mercury is so close to the Sun that not only is it pulled around the Sun, space itself is too. Were it not for Mercury demonstrating this effect, Einstein probably would not have been so readily believed.

Incidentally, the other curiosity was the photoelectric effect, which needed quantum mechanics to explain. That, not relativity, was what Einstein won his Nobel Prize for.


After six years orbiting the planet, NASA’s MESSENGER probe ran out of fuel in 2014 and could no longer correct its course. As its orbit decayed, it got closer to the planet, and much faster. The resulting crash into Mercury a year later occurred at more than 8000 mph and left a crater more than 50 feet wide. That makes it easily the biggest humanmade crater anywhere in the universe … apart from those on Earth, obviously.


Mercury orbits so close to the Sun that the conventional ideas of days and years don’t really make much sense. Mercury’s rotation (remember, rotation on a planet's axis causes its days) and orbit (which causes its years) are linked through gravity more tightly than Earth. In fact, Mercury rotates three times on its axis every two years. This makes each Mercury day—as in sunrise to sunset and back to sunrise—last two of its years. It’s a weird day, too: The Sun rises, goes backwards in the sky to set, rises again, then finally sets a year later. The next year, from the perspective of Mercury, the Sun would appear to move in the opposite direction.


Mercury’s small size means it has no permanent atmosphere, just a thin layer called an exosphere; its gravity is too weak to hold onto any gas in the wake of the strong solar wind. However, it does have a remarkably strong magnetic field, which means it keeps a hold of whatever ions come its way. There are a lot of ions in that part of space.

So while planets such as Earth are nice and oxygen filled, Mercury’s atmosphere contains the kind of things planets normally don’t hang on to, including ions of magnesium, calcium, sodium (you may remember from chemistry class that those are the ones that explode in water), as well as unusual ions of water. Mercury may smell like wet, metallic burps. 

Big Questions
What is Mercury in Retrograde, and Why Do We Blame Things On It?

Crashed computers, missed flights, tensions in your workplace—a person who subscribes to astrology would tell you to expect all this chaos and more when Mercury starts retrograding for the first time this year on Friday, March 23. But according to an astronomer, this common celestial phenomenon is no reason to stay cooped up at home for weeks at a time.

"We don't know of any physical mechanism that would cause things like power outages or personality changes in people," Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, tells Mental Floss. So if Mercury doesn’t throw business dealings and relationships out of whack when it appears to change direction in the sky, why are so many people convinced that it does?


Mercury retrograde—as it's technically called—was being written about in astrology circles as far back as the mid-18th century. The event was noted in British agricultural almanacs of the time, which farmers would read to sync their planting schedules to the patterns of the stars. During the spiritualism craze of the Victorian era, interest in astrology boomed, with many believing that the stars affected the Earth in a variety of (often inconvenient) ways. Late 19th-century publications like The Astrologer’s Magazine and The Science of the Stars connected Mercury retrograde with heavy rainfall. Characterizations of the happening as an "ill omen" also appeared in a handful of articles during that period, but its association with outright disaster wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today.

While other spiritualist hobbies like séances and crystal gazing gradually faded, astrology grew even more popular. By the 1970s, horoscopes were a newspaper mainstay and Mercury retrograde was a recurring player. Because the Roman god Mercury was said to govern travel, commerce, financial wealth, and communication, in astrological circles, Mercury the planet became linked to those matters as well.

"Don’t start anything when Mercury is retrograde," an April 1979 issue of The Baltimore Sun instructed its readers. "A large communications organization notes that magnetic storms, disrupting messages, are prolonged when Mercury appears to be going backwards. Mercury, of course, is the planet associated with communication." The power attributed to the event has become so overblown that today it's blamed for everything from digestive problems to broken washing machines.


Though hysteria around Mercury retrograde is stronger than ever, there's still zero evidence that it's something we should worry about. Even the flimsiest explanations, like the idea that the gravitational pull from Mercury influences the water in our bodies in the same way that the moon controls the tides, are easily deflated by science. "A car 20 feet away from you will exert a stronger pull of gravity than the planet Mercury does," Dr. Hammergren says.

To understand how little Mercury retrograde impacts life on Earth, it helps to learn the physical process behind the phenomenon. When the planet nearest to the Sun is retrograde, it appears to move "backwards" (east to west rather than west to east) across the sky. This apparent reversal in Mercury's orbit is actually just an illusion to the people viewing it from Earth. Picture Mercury and Earth circling the Sun like cars on a racetrack. A year on Mercury is shorter than a year on Earth (88 Earth days compared to 365), which means Mercury experiences four years in the time it takes us to finish one solar loop.

When the planets are next to one another on the same side of the Sun, Mercury looks like it's moving east to those of us on Earth. But when Mercury overtakes Earth and continues its orbit, its straight trajectory seems to change course. According to Dr. Hammergren, it's just a trick of perspective. "Same thing if you were passing a car on a highway, maybe going a little bit faster than they are," he says. "They're not really going backwards, they just appear to be going backwards relative to your motion."

Embedded from GIFY

Earth's orbit isn't identical to that of any other planet in the solar system, which means that all the planets appear to move backwards at varying points in time. Planets farther from the Sun than Earth have even more noticeable retrograde patterns because they're visible at night. But thanks to astrology, it's Mercury's retrograde motion that incites dread every few months.

Dr. Hammergren blames the superstition attached to Mercury, and astrology as a whole, on confirmation bias: "[Believers] will say, 'Aha! See, there's a shake-up in my workplace because Mercury's retrograde.'" He urges people to review the past year and see if the periods of their lives when Mercury was retrograde were especially catastrophic. They'll likely find that misinterpreted messages and technical problems are fairly common throughout the year. But as Dr. Hammergren says, when things go wrong and Mercury isn't retrograde, "we don't get that hashtag. It's called Monday."

This story originally ran in 2017.

science fiction
Why So Many Aliens in Pop Culture Look Familiar

Aliens have been depicted countless times in cinema, from Georges Méliès's A Trip to the Moon (1902) to James Cameron's Avatar (2009). But despite the advancements in special-effects technology over the past century, most aliens we see on screen still share a lot of similarities—mainly, they look, move, and interact with the world like humans do. Vox explains how the classic alien look came to be in their new video below.

When you picture an alien, you may imagine a being with reptilian skin or big, black eyes, but the basic components of a human body—two arms, two legs, and a head with a face—are likely all there. In reality, finding an intelligent creature that evolved all those same features on a planet millions of light-years away would be an extraordinary coincidence. If alien life does exist, it may not look like anything we've ever seen on Earth.

But when it comes to science fiction, accuracy isn't always the goal. Creating an alien character humans can relate to may take priority. Or, the alien's design may need to work as a suit that can be worn by human performers. The result is a version of extraterrestrial life that looks alien— but not too alien—to movie audiences.

So if aliens probably won't have four limbs, two eyes, and a mouth, what would they look like if we ever met them person? These experts have some theories.

[h/t Vox]


More from mental floss studios