Mercury's magnetic field kicked in 4B years ago, study shows
Messenger spacecraft detected traces of magnetization in an ancient part of the planet's crust
New results from NASA's now-defunct Messenger spacecraft show Mercury's magnetic field switched on about four billion years ago, scientists said on Thursday.
Messenger spent four years orbiting Mercury before it ran out of fuel and crashed into the planet's surface on April 30.
For several months before then, however, it flew closer and closer to the ground, relaying unprecedented pictures and details about the solar system's innermost planet.
- Listen to a Quirks & Quarks segment on the discovery this Saturday
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- Messenger spacecraft crashes into Mercury
It was during several of these low-altitude passes that Messenger detected traces of magnetization in an ancient part of the planet's crust, telltale fingerprints of a global magnetic field, a study published in this week's issue of the journal Science shows.
The field may have been 100 times more powerful than what Mercury has today, said lead researcher Catherine Johnson, with the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
Like Earth, Mercury's magnetic field stems from what is called a dynamo - the motion of electrically conductive molten iron deep in the planet's core.
But how tiny Mercury has managed to sustain the process is a mystery.
With a diameter of just 4,879 kilometres, or about one-third bigger than the moon, Mercury's core should have cooled and solidified long ago, computer models show.
The finding should help scientists ferret out more details about Mercury's history, as well as illuminate how planets beyond the solar system could form and sustain protective magnetic shields.