, Volume 152, Issue 1-4, pp 307-339
Date: 09 Jul 2009

The Magnetic Field of Mercury


The magnetic field strength of Mercury at the planet’s surface is approximately 1% that of Earth’s surface field. This comparatively low field strength presents a number of challenges, both theoretically to understand how it is generated and observationally to distinguish the internal field from that due to the solar wind interaction. Conversely, the small field also means that Mercury offers an important opportunity to advance our understanding both of planetary magnetic field generation and magnetosphere-solar wind interactions. The observations from the Mariner 10 magnetometer in 1974 and 1975, and the MESSENGER Magnetometer and plasma instruments during the probe’s first two flybys of Mercury on 14 January and 6 October 2008, provide the basis for our current knowledge of the internal field. The external field arising from the interaction of the magnetosphere with the solar wind is more prominent near Mercury than for any other magnetized planet in the Solar System, and particular attention is therefore paid to indications in the observations of deficiencies in our understanding of the external field. The second MESSENGER flyby occurred over the opposite hemisphere from the other flybys, and these newest data constrain the tilt of the planetary moment from the planet’s spin axis to be less than 5°. Considered as a dipole field, the moment is in the range 240 to 270 nT-R M 3 , where R M is Mercury’s radius. Multipole solutions for the planetary field yield a smaller dipole term, 180 to 220 nT-R M 3 , and higher-order terms that together yield an equatorial surface field from 250 to 290 nT. From the spatial distribution of the fit residuals, the equatorial data are seen to reflect a weaker northward field and a strongly radial field, neither of which can be explained by a centered-dipole matched to the field measured near the pole by Mariner 10. This disparity is a major factor controlling the higher-order terms in the multipole solutions. The residuals are not largest close to the planet, and when considered in magnetospheric coordinates the residuals indicate the presence of a cross-tail current extending to within 0.5R M altitude on the nightside. A near-tail current with a density of 0.1 μA/m2 could account for the low field intensities recorded near the equator. In addition, the MESSENGER flybys include the first plasma observations from Mercury and demonstrate that solar wind plasma is present at low altitudes, below 500 km. Although we can be confident in the dipole-only moment estimates, the data in hand remain subject to ambiguities for distinguishing internal from external contributions. The anticipated observations from orbit at Mercury, first from MESSENGER beginning in March 2011 and later from the dual-spacecraft BepiColombo mission, will be essential to elucidate the higher-order structure in the magnetic field of Mercury that will reveal the telltale signatures of the physics responsible for its generation.

Mario H. Acuña deceased 5 March 2009.