, Volume 132, Issue 2-4, pp 229-260
Date: 26 Oct 2007

Interior Evolution of Mercury

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The interior evolution of Mercury—the innermost planet in the solar system, with its exceptional high density—is poorly known. Our current knowledge of Mercury is based on observations from Mariner 10’s three flybys. That knowledge includes the important discoveries of a weak, active magnetic field and a system of lobate scarps that suggests limited radial contraction of the planet during the last 4 billion years. We review existing models of Mercury’s interior evolution and further present new 2D and 3D convection models that consider both a strongly temperature-dependent viscosity and core cooling. These studies provide a framework for understanding the basic characteristics of the planet’s internal evolution as well as the role of the amount and distribution of radiogenic heat production, mantle viscosity, and sulfur content of the core have had on the history of Mercury’s interior.

The existence of a dynamo-generated magnetic field suggests a growing inner core, as model calculations show that a thermally driven dynamo for Mercury is unlikely. Thermal evolution models suggest a range of possible upper limits for the sulfur content in the core. For large sulfur contents the model cores would be entirely fluid. The observation of limited planetary contraction (∼1–2 km)—if confirmed by future missions—may provide a lower limit for the core sulfur content. For smaller sulfur contents, the planetary contraction obtained after the end of the heavy bombardment due to inner core growth is larger than the observed value. Due to the present poor knowledge of various parameters, for example, the mantle rheology, the thermal conductivity of mantle and crust, and the amount and distribution of radiogenic heat production, it is not possible to constrain the core sulfur content nor the present state of the mantle. Therefore, it is difficult to robustly predict whether or not the mantle is conductive or in the convective regime. For instance, in the case of very inefficient planetary cooling—for example, as a consequence of a strong thermal insulation by a low conductivity crust and a stiff Newtonian mantle rheology—the predicted sulfur content can be as low as 1 wt% to match current estimates of planetary contraction, making deep mantle convection likely. Efficient cooling—for example, caused by the growth of a crust strongly in enriched in radiogenic elements—requires more than 6.5 wt% S. These latter models also predict a transition from a convective to a conductive mantle during the planet’s history. Data from future missions to Mercury will aid considerably our understanding of the evolution of its interior.