Based on the chemical composition of rocks on Mercury's surface, scientists at MIT have proposed that the planet may have harbored a large, roiling ocean of magma very early in its history, shortly after its formation about 4.5 billion years ago.
The scientists analyzed data gathered by MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging), a NASA probe that has orbited the planet since March 2011.
Later that year, a group of scientists analyzed X-ray fluorescence data from the probe, and identified two distinct compositions of rocks on the planet's surface. The discovery unearthed a planetary puzzle: What geological processes could have given rise to such distinct surface compositions?
To answer that question, the MIT team used the compositional data to recreate the two rock types in the lab, and subjected each synthetic rock to high temperatures and pressures to simulate various geological processes. From their experiments, the scientists came up with only one phenomenon to explain the two compositions: a vast magma ocean that created two different layers of crystals, solidified, then eventually remelted into magma that then erupted onto Mercury's surface.
"The thing that's really amazing on Mercury is, this didn't happen yesterday. The crust is probably more than 4 billion years old, so this magma ocean is a really ancient feature," said Timothy Grove, a professor of geology at MIT.
Grove, along with postdoc Bernard Charlier and Maria Zuber, the E.A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics and Planetary Science and now MIT's vice president for research, published the results in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters. (ANI)