MESSENGER’s radio tracking has allowed the scientific team to develop the first precise model of Mercury’s gravity field which, when combined with topographic data and the planet’s spin state, sheds light on the planet’s internal structure, the thickness of its crust, the size and state of its core, and its tectonic and thermal history.
Mercury’s core occupies a large fraction of the planet, about 85% of the planetary radius, even larger than previous estimates. Because of the planet’s small size, at one time many scientists thought the interior should have cooled to the point that the core would be solid. However, subtle dynamical motions measured from Earth-based radar, combined with MESSENGER’s newly measured parameters of the gravity field and the characteristics of Mercury’s internal magnetic field that signify an active core dynamo, indicate that the planet’s core is at least partially liquid.
Mercury’s core is different from any other planetary core in the Solar System. Earth has a metallic, liquid outer core sitting above a solid inner core. Mercury appears to have a solid silicate crust and mantle overlying a solid, iron sulfide outer core layer, a deeper liquid core layer, and possibly a solid inner core. These results have implications for how Mercury’s magnetic field is generated and for understanding how the planet evolved thermally.