The chronology of Mercury's geological and geophysical evolution: The vulcanoid hypothesis

Martha A. Leake, Clark R. Chapman, Stuart J. Weidenschilling, Donald R. Davis, Richard Greenberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


Previous discussions of Mercury's evolution have assumed that its cratering chronology is tied to that of the Moon, i.e., with Caloris forming about 3.9 Gyr ago as part of a late heavy bombardment that affected all of the terrestrial planets. That assumption requires that Mercury's core formed very early, because associated expansion features are not visible, and must have been erased before the cratering flux declined. Moreover, the modest amount of global shrinkage inferred from visible compressional features on Mercury's surface implies that the core is either largely molten at present, or had largely solidified before the end of the bombardment. The former interpretation requires a significant volatile content or implausibly large internal heat sources, while the latter raises questions about how to generate the planet's magnetic field. We have investigated whether constraints on Mercury's chronology could be relaxed by effects of a Mercury-specific bombarding population of planetesimals interior to its orbit, encountering the planet only occasionally due to secular perturbations. Such "vulcanoids" could have been a significant source of early cratering. However, those in orbits that can cross Mercury's are depleted by mutual collisions in {less-than or approximate}1 Gyr, and can provide at most a modest extension of the period of heavy bombardment. Further inside Mercury's orbit, lower collisional velocities might allow survival of vulcanoids to the present. We report on a search for such bodies and on observational limits to such a population. We also review evidence that Mercury's intercrater plains are of volcanic origin and mainly predate Caloris, and that scarp formation (and global contraction) mainly postdates Caloris and has continued to recent times. If global lineaments are the product of tidal despinning, they constrain core formation to the first half of the planet's lifetime. While some questions and inconsistencies remain, the preponderance of evidence suggests that Mercury differentiated early, and at least half of its core volume is presently molten, probably due to a significant content of some light element such as sulfur.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)350-375
Number of pages26
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1987
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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