BILLION YEAR SECRETS of baking hellworld Mercury UNLOCKED by NASA probe crash

Spaceship streamed back data to Earth before prang

Image of 'smiley face' crater photographed by NASA's Messenger Mercury orbiter
Image of smiley face crater photographed by NASA's Messenger Mercury orbiter

Boffins have discovered that Mercury - closest planet in our solar system to the Sun - has had a magnetic field for nearly four beeellion years.

As The Register previously reported, NASA's Messenger spacecraft slammed into the alien world – which is Sol's closest neighbour – late last month.

Before its crash landing on the planet, the probe beamed back data to scientists as Messenger flew at altitudes as tantalisingly low as 15 kilometres to Mercury's surface in late 2014 and early this year.

Prior to that, the spacecraft's lowest altitudes hovered between 200 and 500 kilometres to the planet's surface.

The findings were published in Science Express on 7 May.

Catherine Johnson, planetary scientist at the University of Columbia, was lead author of the study.

She said: "If we didn’t have these recent observations, we would never have known how Mercury’s magnetic field evolved over time."

Messenger scooped up data on the magnetism of rocks in Mercury's surface, the university said. It added:

Those tiny signals revealed that Mercury’s magnetic field is very ancient, at least 3.7 billion to 3.9 billion years old. The planet itself formed around the same time as Earth, just over 4.5 billion years ago.

Messenger's mission had been expected to last only about a year, however it completed 4,104 orbits of the alien world since its arrival in 2011.

The probe – which was blasted into spaaace in August 2004 – eventually ran out of puff and plummeted into Mercury's surface on 30 April. ®

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