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5 Cratered Facts About Mercury

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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. 

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AFP/Stringer/Getty Images
SpaceX's Landing Blooper Reel Shows That Even Rocket Scientists Make Mistakes
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SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket launches.
AFP/Stringer/Getty Images

On March 30, 2017, SpaceX did something no space program had done before: They relaunched an orbital class rocket from Earth that had successfully achieved lift-off just a year earlier. It wasn't the first time Elon Musk's company broke new ground: In December 2015, it nailed the landing on a reusable rocket—the first time that had been done—and five months later landed a rocket on a droneship in the middle of the ocean, which was also unprecedented. These feats marked significant moments in the history of space travel, but they were just a few of the steps in the long, messy journey to achieve them. In SpaceX's new blooper reel, spotted by Ars Technica, you can see just some of the many failures the company has had along the way.

The video demonstrates that failure is an important part of the scientific process. Of course when the science you're working in deals with launching and landing rockets, failure can be a lot more dramatic than it is in a lab. SpaceX has filmed their rockets blowing up in the air, disintegrating in the ocean, and smashing against landing pads, often because of something small like a radar glitch or lack of propellant.

While explosions—or "rapid unscheduled disassemblies," as the video calls them—are never ideal, some are preferable to others. The Falcon 9 explosion that shook buildings for miles last year, for instance, ended up destroying the $200 million Facebook satellite onboard. But even costly hiccups such as that one are important to future successes. As Musk once said, "If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough."

You can watch the fiery compilation below.

[h/t Ars Technica]

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NASA/Getty Images
Here's Where You Can Watch a Livestream of Cassini's Final Moments
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NASA/Getty Images

It's been a road trip like no other. After seven years and 2.2 billion miles, the NASA orbiter Cassini finally arrived at the Saturn system on June 30, 2004. Ever since, it's been capturing and transmitting valuable data about the distant environment. From sending the Huygens probe to land on the moon Titan to witnessing hurricanes on both of the planet's poles, Cassini has informed more than 3000 scientific papers.

It's been as impressive a mission as any spacecraft has ever undertaken. And tomorrow, Cassini will perform one last feat: sacrificing itself to Saturn's intense atmosphere. Project scientists are deliberately plunging it into the planet in order to secure just a little more data—and to keep the spacecraft, which is running low on fuel, from one day colliding with a Saturnian moon that might harbor life.

Because it won't have time to store anything on its hard drive, Cassini will livestream its blaze of glory via NASA. The information will be composed mostly of measurements, since pictures would take too long to send. Instead, we'll get data about Saturn's magnetic field and the composition of its dust and gas.

"As we fly through the atmosphere, we are able to literally scoop up some molecules, and from those we can figure out the ground truth in Saturn’s atmosphere," Scott Edgington, a Cassini project scientist, told New Scientist. "Just like almost everything else in this mission, I expect to be completely surprised."

The action will kick off at 7 a.m. EDT on Friday, September 15. Scientists expect to say goodbye to Cassini less than an hour later. 

While you wait for Cassini's grand finale, you can check out some essential facts we've rounded up from Saturn experts. And keep your eyes peeled for a full recap of Cassini’s historic journey: Mental Floss will be in the control room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, to offer a firsthand account of the craft's final moments in space. 


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