Mercury is the innermost and smallest planet in the Solar System,orbiting the Sun once every 87.969 Earth days. The orbit of Mercury has the highest eccentricity of all the Solar System planets, and it has the smallest axial tilt. It completes three rotations about its axis for every two orbits. The perihelion of Mercury's orbit precesses around the Sun at an excess of 43 arcseconds per century, a phenomenon that was explained in the 20th century by Albert Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. Mercury is bright when viewed from Earth, ranging from −2.3 to 5.7 in apparent magnitude, but is not easily seen as its greatest angular separation from the Sun is only 28.3°. Since Mercury is normally lost in the glare of the Sun, unless there is a solar eclipse it can be viewed from Earth's Northern Hemisphere only in morning or evening twilight, while its extreme elongations occur in declinations south of the celestial equator, such that it can be seen at favorable apparitions from moderate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere in a fully dark sky.
Comparatively little is known about Mercury; ground-based telescopes reveal only an illuminated crescent with limited detail. The first of two spacecraft to visit the planet was Mariner 10, which mapped about 45% of the planet’s surface from 1974 to 1975. The second is the MESSENGER spacecraft, which attained orbit around Mercury on March 17, 2011, where it will begin mapping the rest of the planet.
Mercury is similar in appearance to the Moon: it is heavily cratered with regions of smooth plains, has no natural satellites and no substantial atmosphere. However, unlike the Moon, it has a large iron core, which generates a magnetic field about 1% as strong as that of the Earth. It is an exceptionally dense planet due to the large relative size of its core. Surface temperatures range from about 90 to 700 K (−183 °C to 427 °C),with the subsolar point being the hottest and the bottoms of craters near the poles being the coldest.
Recorded observations of Mercury date back to at least the first millennium BC. Before the 4th century BC, Greek astronomers believed the planet to be two separate objects: one visible only at sunrise, which they called Apollo; the other visible only at sunset, which they called Hermes.The English name for the planet comes from the Romans, who named it after the Roman god Mercury, which they equated with the Greek Hermes (Ἑρμῆς). The astronomical symbol for Mercury is a stylized version of Hermes' caduceus.
Mercury is one of four terrestrial planets in the Solar System, and is a rocky body like the Earth. It is the smallest planet in the Solar System, with an equatorial radius of 2,439.7 km. Mercury is even smaller — albeit more massive — than the largest natural satellites in the Solar System, Ganymede and Titan. Mercury consists of approximately 70% metallic and 30% silicate material. Mercury's density is the second highest in the Solar System at 5.427 g/cm3, only slightly less than Earth’s density of 5.515 g/cm3. If the effect of gravitational compression were to be factored out, the materials of which Mercury is made would be denser, with an uncompressed density of 5.3 g/cm3 versus Earth’s 4.4 g/cm3.
Mercury’s density can be used to infer details of its inner structure. While the Earth’s high density results appreciably from gravitational compression, particularly at the core, Mercury is much smaller and its inner regions are not nearly as strongly compressed. Therefore, for it to have such a high density, its core must be large and rich in iron.
1. Crust: 100-300 km thick
2. Mantle: 600 km thick
3. Core: 1,800 km radius
Geologists estimate that Mercury’s core occupies about 42% of its volume; for Earth this proportion is 17%. Recent research strongly suggests Mercury has a molten core.Surrounding the core is a 500–700 km mantle consisting of silicates. Based on data from the Mariner 10 mission and Earth-based observation, Mercury’s crust is believed to be 100–300 km thick. One distinctive feature of Mercury’s surface is the presence of numerous narrow ridges, extending up to several hundred kilometers in length. It is believed that these were formed as Mercury’s core and mantle cooled and contracted at a time when the crust had already solidified.
Mercury's core has a higher iron content than that of any other major planet in the Solar System, and several theories have been proposed to explain this. The most widely accepted theory is that Mercury originally had a metal-silicate ratio similar to common chondrite meteorites, thought to be typical of the Solar System's rocky matter, and a mass approximately 2.25 times its current mass. However, early in the Solar System’s history, Mercury may have been struck by a planetesimal of approximately 1/6 that mass and several hundred kilometers across. The impact would have stripped away much of the original crust and mantle, leaving the core behind as a relatively major component.A similar process, known as the giant impact hypothesis, has been proposed to explain the formation of Earth’s Moon.
Alternatively, Mercury may have formed from the solar nebula before the Sun's energy output had stabilized. The planet would initially have had twice its present mass, but as the protosun contracted, temperatures near Mercury could have been between 2,500 and 3,500 K (Celsius equivalents about 273 degrees less), and possibly even as high as 10,000 K.Much of Mercury’s surface rock could have been vaporized at such temperatures, forming an atmosphere of "rock vapor" which could have been carried away by the solar wind.
A third hypothesis proposes that the solar nebula caused drag on the particles from which Mercury was accreting, which meant that lighter particles were lost from the accreting material.Each hypothesis predicts a different surface composition, and two upcoming space missions, MESSENGER and BepiColombo, both aim to make observations to test them.