Thickness of Mercury’s crust from MESSENGER gravity and altimetry data
Tuesday, 16 December 2014
The major igneous events that form and shape the crust of a rocky body, such as magma ocean solidification and volcanism, affect the interior thermo-chemical evolution through control on the bulk volatile content, partitioning of heat-producing elements, and heat loss. Therefore, characterizing the crust of a body provides information on that object’s origin, differentiation, and subsequent geologic evolution. For Mercury, the crust may hold clues in particular to the still poorly understood processes of formation of this planet. Analysis of geoid-to-topography ratios (GTRs) has been previously applied to infer the thickness of the crust of the Moon, Mars, and Venus. We perform a similar analysis for Mercury with the gravity and altimetry data acquired by the MESSENGER spacecraft. We consider only the northern hemisphere, where the gravity field and topography are well constrained. We assume that Airy isostasy is the principal mechanism of support of variations in topography, and we therefore exclude from the analysis regions that might not be compatible with this assumption, such as large expanses of smooth plains and large impact basins. For a conservative range of densities of the crust, we infer a crustal thickness of 35±18 km (one standard deviation). This new mean value is substantially less than earlier estimates that were based on viscous relaxation of topography, on the relation between the low-degree gravity field and equatorial ellipticity, and on the depth of the brittle-ductile transition as constrained by models of thrust faulting and thermal evolution. This relatively thin crust allows for the possibility of excavation of mantle material during the formation of large impact basins (such as Caloris). Such material might be observed with instruments on MESSENGER and the BepiColombo spacecraft now in development.