MESSENGER: Exploring mercury's magnetosphere

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Physics and Astronomy


The MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) mission to Mercury offers our first opportunity to explore this planet's miniature magnetosphere since the brief flybys of Mariner 10. Mercury's magnetosphere is unique in many respects. The magnetosphere of Mercury is among the smallest in the solar system; its magnetic field typically stands off the solar wind only similar to 1000 to 2000 km above the surface. For this reason there are no closed drift paths for energetic particles and, hence, no radiation belts. Magnetic reconnection at the dayside magnetopause may erode the subsolar magnetosphere, allowing solar wind ions to impact directly the regolith. Inductive currents in Mercury's interior may act to modify the solar wind interaction by resisting changes due to solar wind pressure variations. Indeed, observations of these induction effects may be an important source of information on the state of Mercury's interior. In addition, Mercury's magnetosphere is the only one with its defining magnetic flux tubes rooted beneath the solid surface as opposed to an atmosphere with a conductive ionospheric layer. This lack of an ionosphere is probably the underlying reason for the brevity of the very intense, but short-lived, similar to 1-2 min, substorm-like energetic particle events observed by Mariner 10 during its first traversal of Mercury's magnetic tail. Because of Mercury's proximity to the sun, 0.3-0.5 AU, this magnetosphere experiences the most extreme driving forces in the solar system. All of these factors are expected to produce complicated interactions involving the exchange and recycling of neutrals and ions among the solar wind, magnetosphere, and regolith. The electrodynamics of Mercury's magnetosphere are expected to be equally complex, with strong forcing by the solar wind, magnetic reconnection, and pick-up of planetary ions all playing roles in the generation of field-aligned electric currents. However, these field-aligned currents do not close in an ionosphere, but in some other manner. In addition to the insights into magnetospheric physics offered by study of the solar wind-Mercury system, quantitative specification of the "external" magnetic field generated by magnetospheric currents is necessary for accurate determination of the strength and multi-polar decomposition of Mercury's intrinsic magnetic field. MESSENGER's highly capable instrumentation and broad orbital coverage will greatly advance our understanding of both the origin of Mercury's magnetic field and the acceleration of charged particles in small magnetospheres. In this article, we review what is known about Mercury's magnetosphere and describe the MESSENGER science team's strategy for obtaining answers to the outstanding science questions surrounding the interaction of the solar wind with Mercury and its small, but dynamic, magnetosphere.

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