Mercury's sodium exosphere
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In this dissertation I examine the properties and origins of the most energetic component of Mercury's atmosphere and how it couples to the planet's magnetosphere and space environment. Mercury' s atmosphere consists of particles liberated from its surface that follow ballistic, collisionless trajectories under the influence of gravity and solar radiation pressure. This tenuous atmosphere can be classified as an exosphere where the exobase boundary is the planet's surface. To explain how this exosphere is sustained, a number of theories have been presented: (1) thermal evaporation from the hot surface; (2) photo-desorption of surface materials by UV solar radiation; (3) sputtering by plasma surface interactions; and (4) vaporization of the surface by micro-meteorite impacts. Using a 3-dimensional numerical model, I determine the role each source has in populating the exosphere. New observations of Mercury's escaping atmosphere are presented using novel imaging techniques in which sodium acts as a tracer to identify atmospheric sources. I discuss the implications of these measurements for our understanding of the physical processes at work in the exosphere, and provide a foundation for modeling such processes. For the first time, this work quantifies the variability in the loss of Mercury's sodium as a seasonal effect. My observations show that atmospheric escape can, at times, exceed 10^24 Na atoms s^-1, nearly twice the highest rate previously reported. By forward modeling Mercury's atmospheric escape, I place new constraints on the source properties and eliminate the prevailing theory that the escaping tail is sputtered from the surface by solar wind ions. The MESSENGER spacecraft has recently discovered that sodium is distributed unevenly over the surface and that the magnetosphere is offset from the planet's center. Using the first model to include these effects, I demonstrate the magnetosphere's influence upon exospheric sources by simulating asymmetries observed in the escaping atmosphere. I conclude that the exosphere is sustained by a combination of micro-meteorite impact vaporization and photo-desorption that is locally enhanced by precipitating ions.