A closer look at Mercury yields a violent, diamond-studded past

Colorado-based planetary scientist Kevin Cannon thinks Mercury gets less attention than its celestial counterparts. 

He recently shared findings of computer simulation showing the Sun’s closet neighbor may have been covered in vast fields of diamonds thanks to billions of years of meteorite impacts. 

“[Mercury] can seem a bit dull in comparison [to other planets],” Cannon told States of Life. “But we’re discovering a lot of intriguing features of this innermost planet.” 

When the planet first formed, scientists posit that it had a magma ocean like other large rocky planetary bodies (Venus, Earth, the Moon, Mars, Vesta, etc.) that could have extended “hundreds of kilometers deep,” Cannon said. 

“The surfaces may have looked like incandescent lava, perhaps covered in places by a thin crust of chilled rock, and possibly surrounded by a steam atmosphere,” Cannon said. 

For those of you keeping score at home, the simulations found that 16,000,000,000,000,000—16 quadrillion tons of diamonds were created from the meteorite bombardment on the planet’s graphite crust. That’s about 16 times the total number of all diamonds estimated on Earth.  

Needless to say, Mercury was as the kids say: “Icy.” 

But don’t get high hopes of harvesting these diamonds any time soon because they may have already been destroyed by subsequent impacts. 

Cannon presented his team’s findings earlier this spring at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference that was first reported in a Science News article published on March 21. 

He noted his work was prompted by a long line of research on Mercury by other scientists— including NASA’s MESSENGER mission. That mission showed that large swaths of its surface are covered by a “low reflective material.” 

“It’s dark stuff that may be blackened by graphite or other carbon phases,” Cannon said. “Others have documented that when graphite is present in asteroids that smash together it can form diamonds. that we find in the meteorite collection. So I put these and some other ideas together and pursued the possibility of diamonds on Mercury.” 

Cannon called the the endeavor a “fun side project” that he pursued along with his main line of work. The simulations spanned 4.5 billion years of impacts on the “dark stuff” with that graphite shell being nearly 300 meters (984 feet) thick. 

Currently, Cannon said the team was working on “more advanced simulations” using a tool known as hydrocodes, which are code packages that cane be used for the numerical solution of mathematical models of high energy wave propagation phenomena. These in-depth models will see how much graphite was actually transformed into diamond when an asteroid or comet slammed into the planet’s surface. 

“The preliminary work simply looked at the effects of random impacts hitting the surface and assuming they transform some of the graphite close to the impact point into diamond,” Cannon said.

He added, “It’s probably time we actually send a lander or rover there after the success of satellites that have flown by or orbited.” 

In 2025, the BepiColombo mission looks to put two orbiters near Mercury to get the best understanding of the planet to-date, according to the European Space Agency (ESA). The opportunity to get more insight into the Mercury’s diamond-studded past will present itself as the mission looks to study the planet’s composition, geophysics, atmosphere, magnetosphere and history. 

Kevin Cannon is an assistant professor of geology and geological engineering/space resources at the Colorado School of Mines. His research focuses on the intersection of planetary geology and space resources to apply methods and knowledge used to study different planetary bodies in order to identify potential resources and develop methods to extract them.

Bonus Q&A

Editor: If you could visit one object or place in the universe, where would you go and why? 

Cannon: “I’d like to stand on the edge of Valles Marineris on Mars. Even though it’s so bit you couldn’t see across the canyon, this has to be one of the better views in the solar system.”

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