An iron snow dynamo explains Mercury's peculiar field

Friday, 19 December 2014: 5:30 PM
Ulrich R Christensen and Johannes Wicht, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany
The Messenger mission confirmed that Mercury's magnetic field is relatively weak and dominantly dipolar, but also showed the presence of a strong axial quadrupole term. This can be described equivalently by an offset of the dipole along the rotation axis. Furthermore, nonzonal field components could not be unambiguously identified. If Mercury's core contains more than a few percent of sulfur, crystallization may start at the core-mantle boundary rather than at the center. In the outer parts of the core iron snow would form, sink and remelt deeper down where it enriches the fluid in iron and drives compositional convection from above. The snow forming layer grows inward over time and a gradient in sulfur concentration develops which strongly stabilizes this layer against convective overturn. We study this scenario in MHD dynamo models. Aside from geodynamo-like dipolar solutions we find hemispherical dynamos. Here magnetic field is generated predominantly in either the the northern or the southern hemisphere. The axial dipole and axial quadrupole are of comparable strength at the upper boundary of the unstable dynamo region. Systematic studies show that the hemispherical solutions are favored by slow rotation and by a thick stable layer above the dynamo. A thick layer also axisymmetrizes and weakens the field at the boundary of the core. Mercury's observed dipole moment and the quadrupole-to-dipole ratio can approximately be matched by a hemispherical dynamo when the stable layer thickness exceeds half of the core radius.