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Mercury
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by Frances Core
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Short description:

Mercury is the innermost planet in the Solar System. It is also the smallest, and its orbit is the most eccentric (that is, the least perfectly circular) of the eight planets. It orbits the Sun once in about 88 Earth days, completing three rotations about its axis for every two orbits. The planet is named after the Roman god Mercury, the messenger to the gods. Mercury's surface is heavily cratered and similar in appearance to Earth's Moon, indicating that it has been geologically inactive for billions of years. Due to its near lack of an atmosphere to retain heat, Mercury's surface experiences the steepest temperature gradient of all the planets, ranging from a very cold 100 K at night to a very hot 700 K during the day. (Demonstration document)

Internal Structure

Mercury is one of four terrestrial planets in the Solar System, and is a rocky body like the Earth. It is the smallest planet in the Solar System, with an equatorial radius of 2,439.7 km. Mercury is even smaller—albeit more massive—than the largest natural satellites in the Solar System, Ganymede and Titan. Mercury consists of approximately 70% metallic and 30% silicate material. Mercury's density is the second highest in the Solar System at 5.427 g/cm3, only slightly less than Earth’s density of 5.515 g/cm3. If the effect of gravitational compression were to be factored out, the materials of which Mercury is made would be denser, with an uncompressed density of 5.3 g/cm3 versus Earth’s 4.4 g/cm3.

Mercury’s density can be used to infer details of its inner structure. While the Earth’s high density results appreciably from gravitational compression, particularly at the core, Mercury is much smaller and its inner regions are not nearly as strongly compressed. Therefore, for it to have such a high density, its core must be large and rich in iron.

Geologists estimate that Mercury’s core occupies about 42% of its volume; for Earth this proportion is 17%. Recent research strongly suggests that Mercury has a molten core.Surrounding the core is a 500–700 km mantle consisting of silicates. Based on data from the Mariner 10 mission and Earth-based observation, Mercury’s crust is believed to be 100–300 km thick. One distinctive feature of Mercury’s surface is the presence of numerous narrow ridges, extending up to several hundred kilometers in length. It is believed that these were formed as Mercury’s core and mantle cooled and contracted at a time when the crust had already solidified.

Mercury's core has a higher iron content than that of any other major planet in the Solar System, and several theories have been proposed to explain this. The most widely accepted theory is that Mercury originally had a metal-silicate ratio similar to common chondrite meteorites, thought to be typical of the Solar System's rocky matter, and a mass approximately 2.25 times its current mass. Early in the Solar System’s history, Mercury may have been struck by a planetesimal of approximately 1/6 that mass and several hundred kilometers across. The impact would have stripped away much of the original crust and mantle, leaving the core behind as a relatively major component. A similar process, known as the giant impact hypothesis, has been proposed to explain the formation of Earth’s Moon.

Final Remarks

Excerpts and images from Wikipedia (demonstration document)