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In the Mountains of Cyprus, Identical Rocks Only Found on Mercury: The Mystery of Lilliput, Boninite and the Ancient Ocean of Tethys [video]

In the Mountains of Cyprus, Identical Rocks Only Found on Mercury: The Mystery of Lilliput, Boninite and the Ancient Ocean of Tethys [video]

An undated image made available by the European Space Agency (ESA) shows an artist's impression of the BepiColombo probe flying by Mercury (released 01 October 2021). BepiColombo is an international collaboration between the European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). EPA/ESA Bulletin/ATG MEDIALAB

Full of surprises not only for its origin and the mysterious chemical composition of its surface Mercury is the closest planet to the sun and the smallest planet in the solar system.

Mercury is one of the four rocky planets in the solar system. The other three are Venus, Earth, and Mars. It has a negligible atmosphere, which leads to large temperature fluctuations on its surface.

Some answers to the mysteries of the smallest planet in the solar system may be hidden in rocks found in Cyprus. Specifically, as stated in BBCNicola Marí, a planetary geologist at the University of Pavia in Italy, studies the ways in which our “neighbors” in the solar system formed and evolved.

For his doctoral thesis, Mary studied lava flows on Mars. This time, his target was the planet Mercury, via Cyprus.

In particular, he looked for a certain type of rock, called Bonnet (a form of basalt high in magnesium, characterized by its low titanium content and trace element composition) It is thought to bear an uncanny resemblance to rocks found on Mercury – a hypothesis that, if correct, could be evidence of the unique origin of basalt. Universe.

Planet of extremism

Mercury is the planet of extremism. With a total size slightly larger than the Moon, it is the smallest planet in the solar system and the closest to the Sun. Mercury has no atmosphere to retain heat, meaning its surface temperature ranges from 400°C during the day to -170°C at night. It also has the shortest orbit of any planet in the solar system, with each year lasting only 88 Earth days.

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Mercury's location has made it very difficult for scientists to study. One reason is heat. Spacecraft approaching the planet must be able to withstand scorching temperatures because they orbit so close to the sun.

The other reason is gravity. The closer it is to the Sun, the stronger its pull, which accelerates the spacecraft's speed. This makes precise maneuvering more difficult, with many “detours” around other planets.

“From an orbital point of view, it's probably more difficult to get to than to Jupiter,” says Ignacio Clerigo, director of operations for the BepiColombo spacecraft, ESA's current mission to Mercury, a project to which Mary's work contributes.

These difficulties mean that Mercury is less well-studied than our other 'neighbours'. Two previous missions — Mariner 10 and MESSENGER — have flown close enough to map its cratered surface, discovering — and revealing — some big surprises about its structure.

One of them concerns the core of the planet. The other rocky planets — Venus, Earth, and Mars — all have a relatively small core, surrounded by a thick mantle of magma and a solid crust. However, Mercury's crust appears surprisingly thin, while its core is unexpectedly massive compared to the mantle. “It's ridiculous,” says Mary.

Unexpectedly, these missions revealed that Mercury is surrounded by a magnetic field. This, combined with its density, suggests that it has an iron core, and like Earth's core, the core may be partially molten.

But the mystery still continues, as the percentage of chemicals present on Mercury's surface is highly unusual. Using a technique known as spectrophotometry to analyze the planet's chemical composition from a distance, scientists know that Mercury contains a much higher concentration of thorium than its closest neighbours.

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Thorium is supposed to have vaporized in the intense heat of the early solar system. Instead, its thorium content is closer to that of Mars – three planets away from us – which may have formed at cooler temperatures due to its distance from the Sun.

According to BBCScientists expect that Mercury started out with a larger mass, similar to Earth's mass. It is believed that an early massive collision was responsible for reducing its size and changing its orbit, giving rise to the compact world we observe today.

Tethys Ocean

Additional studies of similar Earth rocks may provide valuable clues about Mercury's past geological activities and its incredible journey through our solar system.

Cyprus is a piece of the Earth's crust that formed under the Tethys Ocean more than 90 million years ago. As the tectonic plates collided, it was eventually pushed to the surface, becoming the island we know today. The landscape still has an otherworldly feel, with green, mineral-rich rocks, Mare says.

“In some areas of the mountains of Cyprus, it is as if we are still walking over an ancient ocean,” he says. Eventually, he found the specific pieces of lava he was looking for, where bonite is formed from the solidification of molten lava

Marie returned home and, in collaboration with colleagues at NASA and the Museum of Planetary Science in Italy, analyzed the composition of the rocks and compared them to samples taken from Mercury. When the results came out, he was astonished. “They weren't just similar, they were identical.”

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The mixture of elements such as magnesium, aluminum and iron was the same as that seen in the mysterious planet with a massive core. The only difference was that the rocks from Cyprus had been oxidized – which was inevitable given Earth's oxygen-rich atmosphere. This makes it Mercury's first true terrestrial counterpart, providing a valuable additional data point for our understanding of the planet, Marey says.

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