Messenger flew by Mercury last week, and photographed vast swaths of terrain that, until now, had never been seen. The new landscapes, as expected, are cratered, barren, and utterly moonlike. The galaxy could contain a hundred billion planets that would be hard, at first glance, to distinguish from Mercury, and within our cosmic horizon, there are probably of order as many Mercury-like worlds as there are sucrose molecules in a cube of sugar.
Nevertheless, we do gain something extraordinary whenever a new vista onto a terrestrial world is opened up. Galileo was the first to achieve this, when he turned his telescope to the Moon and saw its three-dimensional relief for the first time. Mariner 4 and Mariner 9 accomplished a similar feat for Mars. The Magellan spacecraft revealed the Venusian topography. And once Messenger has photographed the full surface of Mercury, there will be a profoundly significant interval before we get our next up-close view of an unmapped terrestrial planet. My guess is that it’ll be Alpha Centauri B b.
The Messenger website is well worth a visit. I was particularly struck by the movie that the spacecraft made of the Earth during the close fly by of March 2005. During the course of 24 hours, the spinning Earth recedes into the black velvet distance and space travel seems like the real thing.
Mercury’s orbit, with its 88 day period and its eccentricity of 0.2 could slip unnoticed into the distribution of known exoplanets. It’s vaguely comparable, for example, with the orbit of HD 37605 b. This Msini=2.3 Mjup gas giant has an apoastron distance similar to Mercury’s, but dives much closer to its star during periastron.
We’ve been interested in HD 37605 b lately because its orbit dips in and out of the insolation zone where water clouds are expected to exist. At the far point of the 55 day orbit, it should be possible for white clouds to form out of a clear steamy atmosphere. At close approach, the clouds are turning to steam.
Jonathan Langton’s models for this planet show persistent polar vortices, which sequester cooler air, and which may remain cloudy even during the hot days surrounding periastron. The vortices are tenaciously long-lived, and tracer particles seeded into the vortices leak out only slowly. It would be interesting to know what sort of chemistry is brewing in the steamy hothouse environment of trapped and noxious air.