October 24, 2011
The MESSENGER spacecraft is revealing new details about the tiny planet’s chemical composition.
BOB HIRSHON (Host):
The perils of proximity to the Sun. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.
The planet Mercury is close to the Sun, and has almost no atmosphere to shield it from the sun’s radiation and high-energy particles. An instrument called the Fast Imaging Plasma Spectrometer, or FIPS, is now flying aboard the MESSENGER spacecraft—the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury. In the journal Science, University of Michigan professor Thomas Zurbuchen reports that FIPS has found sodium and other atoms that the sun’s bombardment of the planet has blasted into space.
THOMAS ZURBUCHEN (University of Michigan):
We now know that surface sputtering, knocking off particles from the surface, is one of the most important parts of actually populating the space environment. We did not know that before.
He says it happens to some extent all over the planet. Therefore, FIPS will help the MESSENGER science team learn about the composition of Mercury’s surface, by sampling sputtered particles all over the planet. I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.