By L. H. Colligan

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When rocks wear away, they release chemicals that affect the atmosphere. Objects hitting a planet cause atmospheric changes. Temperature changes also affect a planet and cause it to release gases. Mariner 10 found that Mercury’s wisps of atmosphere were made up of barely measurable quantities of helium and hydrogen. The planet’s location so close to the Sun is one reason for Mercury’s thin atmosphere. Strong solar winds long ago destroyed the gases that Mercury gave off as it formed. While Mercury’s magnetism affects nearby objects, its gravity is too weak to hold onto atmospheric gases.

However, Mercury is not just made up of craters. Just like the other terrestrial rocky planets like Mars, Venus, and Earth, Mercury has smooth areas. Heavy volcanic activity in Mercury’s distant past caused lava flows and falling ash that cooled to form smooth plains. Before explorations of Mercury occurred, scientists could only guess what the planet’s surface looked like. However, recent explorations of Mercury have helped to paint a clearer picture. Mercury in The Space age Mercury is wrinkled as well as jagged and smooth.

Magnometers measured Mercury’s magnetic field and found its strength to be about the same as it was when Mariner 10 visited. However, there were surprises, too. ” discovered and mapped during the January 8, 2008 flyby. At the same time, unlike Mariner 10, MESSENGER’s particle spectrometer did not observe any solar energy particles on Mercury. Solomon’s reaction? “I think that tells us that the magnetosphere of Mercury is very changeable. It’s a function of the [activity in the] atmosphere of the Sun; we went by at a particularly quiet period of solar activity, and [we think] it can change in a matter of minutes or hours.

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