Exploring Mercury's Plasma Environment
The Sun is continually hurling its atmosphere into space, forming a solar wind that fills interplanetary space with charged particles or plasma. Now and then, there are major explosions in the solar atmosphere that release a large flux of plasma with speeds up to 3000 kilometers per second. As the closest planet to the Sun, Mercury has a ringside seat on these events.
Under normal conditions, solar wind does not reach Mercury’s surface. Mercury’s magnetic field, although weaker than that of Earth, generally deflects the charged particles around the planet. Because solar wind is supersonic, this boundary that Mercury’s magnetic field presents to the interplanetary medium is abrupt, marked by a sonic-boom-like phenomenon called a bow shock where solar wind particles are forced to go from supersonic to subsonic speeds as they are steered around Mercury. A numerical simulation of this process is shown in the top panel of Figure 1. Near Mercury’s poles, solar wind plasma has easier access to regions close to the planet and sometimes even reaches the surface (see the area near the north pole for this particular simulation). These high-latitude regions near Mercury are somewhat analogous to the auroral regions of Earth.
The violent release of solar coronal material, known as a coronal mass ejection (CME), in the direction of Mercury changes Mercury's environment markedly. The simulations indicate that a CME can push Mercury's magnetic field toward the planet to a degree that allows solar plasmas direct access to a large portion of Mercury's surface, as shown in the bottom panel of Figure 1. The impact of charged particles on Mercury's surface, at high latitudes during normal solar wind conditions and over larger areas during CMEs and other energetic solar particle events, plays an important role in the generation of Mercury's exosphere and in the space weathering of Mercury's surface materials.
The top panel in Figure 4 shows the FIPS measurements of protons (ionized hydrogen). Because FIPS is mounted behind MESSENGER’s sunshade that shields most instruments from heating by the Sun, some directions are blocked from observation. FIPS nonetheless has no difficulty detecting the hot plasmas and particles that come from near the planet. The hot plasmas coming from the volume of space between Mercury’s bow shock and the magnetopause, the outer boundary to Mercury’s magnetosphere, are readily visible as the multicolor bands in the top panel. Yet the top panel also indicates that there is a substantial plasma concentration near the planet in Mercury’s northern polar region, in broad agreement with model simulations such as that in Figure 1.
As shown by the second panel from the top in Figure 4, FIPS measurements of heavy ions indicate that these polar regions contain particularly high levels of ionized particles too heavy to have come from the Sun. These heavy ions (grouped in the figure by mass per charge (m*) near that for singly and doubly ionized helium and singly ionized oxygen and sodium) must be derived from the surface of the planet.
One route for the formation of such a particle is illustrated schematically in Figure 5. When a charged particle or a micrometeoroid hits the surface of Mercury, a neutral particle can be knocked off the surface. This “sputtered” particle follows a ballistic trajectory around the planet until it is ionized by solar radiation or by collision with another particle. Now carrying a charge, the particle suddenly “feels” the draw of the electromagnetic forces surrounding the planet, and it is pulled up into space, where FIPS waits to sample it in orbit about the planet. Other source processes are also possible. For example, high-energy electrons can knock a charged particle loose from the surface, or volatile materials can be evaporated during heating of Mercury’s dayside surface.
It is noteworthy that heavy ions, derived from Mercury’s surface, are observed throughout the magnetosphere on all orbits (Figure 4, second panel from the top). This finding indicates that the ion generation process must be active essentially continuously.
As noted above, the processes that lead to heavy ions near Mercury are also those that contribute to Mercury’s neutral exosphere and to the “space weathering” of Mercury’s surface. As the MESSENGER mission progresses, we can look forward to exploring the many manifestations of these processes and how the observations from the spacecraft’s many instruments are strongly interlinked.