Mercury's magnetic field

Mercury's magnetic field
Magnetosphere of Mercury
Mercury Magnetic Field NASA.jpg
Graph showing relative strength of Mercury's magnetic field.
Discovered by Mariner 10
Discovery date April 1974
Radius of Mercury 2,439.7 ± 1.0 km
Magnetic moment 2 to 6 × 1012 Tm3
Equatorial field strength 300 nT
Dipole tilt 4.5º (toward dawn)
Rotation period ?
Solar wind parameters[4]
Speed 400 km/s
Magnetospheric parameters[5][6]
Magnetopause distance 1.4 RM
Magnetotail length 10–100 RM
Main ions Na+, O+, K+, Mg+, Ca+, S+, H2S+
Plasma sources Solar wind
Maximum particle energy up to 50 keV

Mercury's magnetic field is approximately a magnetic dipole (meaning the field has only two magnetic poles)[7] that is significant, and apparently global,[8] on planet Mercury.[9] Data from Mariner 10 led to its discovery in 1974, and has 1.1% the strength of Earth's magnetic field, as measured by the spacecraft.[10] The origin of the magnetic field can be explained by dynamo theory,[11] and because the magnetic field is strong enough near the bow shock, it slows down the solar wind, which induces a magnetosphere.[12]



The magnetic field is about 1.1% as strong as Earth's.[10] At the Hermean equator, the relative strength of the magnetic field is around 300 nT.[13] Although much weaker than Earth's magnetic field (about 1/100 its magnitude) according to Mariner 10 data, the magnetic field is still strong enough to deflect solar wind emissions, inducing a magnetosphere. Because Mercury's magnetic field is weak while the interplanetary magnetic field it interacts with in its orbit (a perihelion at 0.307 AU and an aphelion at 0.467 AU) is relatively strong, the solar wind dynamic pressure at Mercury′s orbit on the average is also a factor of three larger than that at Earth, for example. Mercury's magnetic field being weaker than Earth's may be because its core had cooled and solidified more quickly than the Earth.[14] Scientists have detected Mercury's magnetic field to be weaker than Jupiter's moon Ganymede's.

Since its discovery in 1974 by Mariner 10, Mercury's magnetic dipole moment has decayed. Dr. Robert Humphreys had predicted that in 2011, the magnetic moment should be between 4.5 and 4.6 x 1019 joules per tesla (ampere-square meters);[15] but instead, when measured, the magnetic moment had declined from 4.8 to just over 3.8 x 1019 joules per tesla. Such a rapid decline would account for nearly 30 percent of the magnetic moment. Data from Mariner 10 and the MESSENGER spacecraft illustrate that the strength and shape of the magnetic field seems stable.[16]


The origins of the magnetic field can be explained by dynamo theory;[11] i.e., by the convection of electrically conductive molten iron in the planet's outer core.[17] A dynamo is generated by a large iron core that has sank to a planet's center of mass, has not cooled over the years, an outer core that has not been completely solidified, and circulates around the interior. Before its discovery in 1974, it was thought that Mercury′s core had cooled over the years of evolution of the Solar System, regarding the planet's small size. There are still difficulties with this dynamo theory, including the fact that Mercury has a slow, 59-day-long orbit that could not have made it possible to generate a magnetic field.

This dynamo is probably weaker than Earth's because it is driven by thermo-compositional convection associated with inner core solidification. The thermal gradient at the core–mantle boundary is subadiabatic, and hence the outer region of the liquid core is stably stratified with the dynamo operating only at depth, where a strong field is generated.[18] Because of the planet's slow rotation, the resulting magnetic field is dominated by small-scale components that fluctuate quickly with time.

Magnetic poles and magnetic measurement

Mercury's magnetic field tends to be stronger at the equator than at other areas of Mercury.

Like Earth's, Mercury's magnetic field is tilted,[9][19] meaning that the magnetic poles are not located in the same area as the geographic poles. As a result of the north-south asymmetry in Mercury's internal magnetic field, the geometry of magnetic field lines is different in Mercury's north and south polar regions.[20] In particular, the magnetic "polar cap" where field lines are open to the interplanetary medium is much larger near the south pole. This geometry implies that the south polar region is much more exposed than in the north to charged particles heated and accelerated by solar wind–magnetosphere interactions. The strength of the quadrupole moment and the tilt of the dipole moment are completely unconstrained.[3]

There have been various ways that Mercury's magnetic field has been measured. In general, the inferred equivalent internal dipole field is smaller when estimated on the basis of magnetospheric size and shape (~150–200 nT R3).[21] Recent Earth-based radar measurements of Mercury's rotation revealed a slight rocking motion explaining that Mercury's core is at least partially molten, implying that iron "snow" helps maintain the magnetic field.[22] The MESSENGER spacecraft will collect more than 500 million measurements of the planet's magnetic field, using its sensitive 'Magnetometer'.[17]


Data from Mariner 10 led to the discovery of Mercury's magnetic field.

Before 1974, it was thought that Mercury could not generate a magnetic field because of its relatively small diameter and lack of an atmosphere. However, when Mariner 10 made a fly-by of Mercury (somewhere around April 1974), it detected a magnetic field that was about 1/100th the total magnitude of Earth's magnetic field. But these passes provided weak constraints on the magnitude of the intrinsic magnetic field, its orientation and its harmonic structure, in part because the coverage of the planetary field was poor and because of the lack of concurrent observations of the solar wind number density and velocity.[3] Since the discovery, Mercury's magnetic field has received a great deal of attention,[23] primarily because of Mercury's small size and slow 59-day-long orbit.

Regarding the origins of the magnetic field, it is currently thought that it comes from the dynamo mechanism,[11][24] although whether this is responsible for the magnetic field or not has not been clarified well.

Field characteristics

The MESSENGER spacraft noted that Mercury's magnetic field is responsible for several magnetic "tornadoes" – twisted bundles of magnetic fields connecting the planetary field to interplanetary space – that are some 800 km wide or a third the total radius of the planet.

Scientists noted that Mercury's magnetic field can be extremely "leaky,"[25][26][27] because MESSENGER encountered magnetic "tornadoes" during its second fly-by on October 6, 2008, which could possibly replenish the atmosphere (or "exosphere", as referred to by astronomers). When Mariner 10 made a fly-by of Mercury back in 1974, its signals measured the bow shock, the entrance and exit from the magnetopause, and that the magnetospheric cavity is ~20 times smaller than Earth's, all of which had presumably decayed during the MESSENGER flyby.[28] Even though the field is just over 1% as strong as Earth's, its detection by Mariner 10 was taken by some scientists as an indication that Mercury's outer core was still liquid, or at least partially liquid with iron and possibly other metals.[29]


  1. ^ "MESSENGER Data from Mercury Orbit Confirms Theories, Offers Surprises". The Watchtowers. 2011-06-06. Retrieved 2011-07-26. 
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  5. ^ Reka Moldovan; Brian J. Anderson; Catherine L. Johnson; James A. Slavin; Haje Korth; Michael E. Purucker; Sean C. Solomon (2011). "Mercury′s magnetopause and bow shock from MESSENGER observations" (PDF). EPSC – DPS. Retrieved 2011-07-26. 
  6. ^ A. V. Lukyanov; S. Barabash; R. Lundin; P. C. Brandt (August 4, 2000). Energetic neutral atom imaging of Mercury′s magnetosphere 2. Distribution of energetic charged particles in a compact magnetosphere – Abstract. "Elsevier; 2000". Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel (Laurel, Maryland: Applied Physics Laboratory) v. 49 (14–15): 1677–1684. Bibcode 2001P&SS...49.1677L. doi:10.1016/S0032-0633(01)00106-4. 
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  8. ^ Williams, David R.. "Planetary Fact Sheet". NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Retrieved 2011-07-25. 
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  10. ^ a b Jerry Coffey (2009-07-24). "Mercury Magnetic Field". Universe Today. Retrieved 2011-07-16. 
  11. ^ a b c Jon Cartwright (2007-05-04). "Molten core solves mystery of Mercury's magnetic field". Physics World. Retrieved 2011-07-16. 
  12. ^ Randy Russell (2009-06-01). "Magnetosphere of Mercury". Windows to the Universe. Retrieved 2011-07-16. 
  13. ^ Kabin, K.; Heimpel, M. H.; Rankin, R.; Aurnou, J. M.; Gómez-Pérez, N.; Paral, J.; Gombosi, T. I.; Zurbuchen, T. H. et al. (2007-06-29). "Global MHD modeling of Mercury′s magnetosphere with applications to the MESSENGER mission and dynamo theory" (PDF). University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved 2011-07-16. 
  14. ^ Lidunka Vočadlo; Lars Stixrude. "Mercury: its composition, internal structure and magnetic field" (PDF). UCL Earth Sciences. Retrieved 2011-07-16. 
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  17. ^ a b Staff Writers (2011-05-20). "Measuring the Magnetic Field of Mercury". SpaceDaily. Retrieved 2011-07-16. 
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  19. ^ Randy Russell (2009-05-29). "Mercury's Poles". Windows to the Universe. Retrieved 2011-07-18. 
  20. ^ Lynn Jenner; Brian Dunbar (2011-06-16). "Magnetic field lines differ at Mercury's north and south poles". NASA. Retrieved 2011-07-18. 
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