Scientists discovered geomagnetic storms similar to Earth occurring on Mercury

  • Scientists have confirmed the occurrence of geomagnetic storms similar to those seen on Earth to be occurring on the planet, Mercury.
  • The storms were discovered by coincidence due to data from NASA’s Messenger probe which crashed on Mercury in 2015.
  • The geomagnetic features of the storm have been attributed to a ring current around the planet, similar to the one responsible for causing radio blackouts and auroras on Earth.

Since the beginning of the modern era. In the realm of space and technology, scientists have been studying our solar system closely. The fascination with the solar system is the fodder which fuels curiosity in people from all walks of life, whether it be scientists or comic book enthusiasts. The most important and alluring segment of this fascination can be asserted to be the possibility of life occurring elsewhere than on Earth.

For years, this fact has filled pockets for ambitious science-fiction novelists and filmmakers and has equally haunted scientists at prestigious space research organizations and governments who have spent millions to try and confirm whether we are the only civilization in the universe and moreover if other planets in our solar system share the conditions found on Earth. Now it seems as if we finally have our answer.

Two studies on an overlooked planet

Mercury is the smallest planet in our solar system and the closest to the Sun. It is already known to have a vastly peculiar environment. Some examples include extreme temperature fluctuations, seen due to its proximity to the sun, to having ice in its craters. Also, mercury presents with a thin atmosphere and a huge iron core, in short, the fiery planet has always been of keen interest in the eyes of scientists.

Now, based on two studies published separately in February this year,  scientists have actually managed to add to the list of peculiarities. An international team of scientists has proved that Mercury has geomagnetic storms similar to those seen on Earth. The research was conducted jointly by scientists in the United States, Canada, and China and primarily highlighted the work of Hui Zhang, a space physics professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute.

By the means of their first publication, Zhang along with his co-workers managed to provide a hypothesis regarding the intra-planetary existence of the current. In simple words, they confirmed the presence of a ring of current which they aptly discussed to be doughnut-shaped and representing a field of charged particles flowing laterally around the planet except around the poles. In their second publication, the scientists confirmed the existence of geomagnetic storms as an event triggered by the very same ring current.

The ring’s current findings were published in Nature Communications journal and is authored by Jiutong Zhao, also of the Institute of Space Physics and Applied Technology at Peking University. While the geomagnetic storms finding was published in the Journal of Science China Technological Sciences. QiuGang Zong of the Institute of Space Physics and Applied Technology at Peking University and the Polar Research Institute of China is the author. Many scientists have worked on both manuscripts simultaneously as Zhang.

What are geomagnetic storms and how were they discovered?

A geomagnetic storm is defined as a major disturbance in a planet’s magnetosphere caused by the transfer of energy from the solar wind which is a stream of charged particles emanating from the Sun.

Confirmation about the geomagnetic storms on Mercury resulted from research made possible by an unseen coincidence. A series of coronal mass ejections were witnessed to be emitted from the sun on April 8-18, 2015, and from the end of NASA’s Messenger space probe. This probe, which was launched in 2004 to study Mercury and its geology and chemical composition had crashed into the planet’s surface on April 30, 2015, at the expected end of its mission.

A coronal mass ejection represents a significant release of plasma. Which is a gas made of charged particles and accompanying magnetic field from the Sun’s corona into the solar wind The coronal mass ejection of April 14 proved to be the key for scientists. It compressed the ring current surrounding Mercury on the sun-facing side and hence increased the current’s energy.

A new analysis of data from Messenger, which had dropped closer to the planet, shows that the presence of increased intensity of ring current is what essentially triggers the main phase of a magnetic storm.

The implication of magnetic storms

On Earth, such storms in the magnetosphere are responsible for various phenomena such as the production of the auroras, witnessed in the Northern hemisphere as Aurora borealis and in the south as Aurora australis. Such magnetic storms can also disrupt radio communications and cause blackouts.

However, Zhang suggests that such implications are only seen on Earth due to its size, its atmospheric composition, and powerful magnetic field. On the other hand, Mercury is the smallest planet having a potentially weak magnetic field and virtually a thin or absent atmosphere. Hence, the projections from the Sun triggering such storms reach the surface unimpeded and may therefore be visible only through X-ray and gamma-ray examination.

Hence the ultimate conclusion is, the confirmed idea that magnetic storms are potentially a common feature of all magnetized planets secondly, as the results obtained from the Messenger probe suggest, the evolution of Mercury in the solar system is a fascinating perspective that needs to be explored vehemently.

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