Mercury's helium exosphere may strongly vary along its orbit

Solar Stellar Connection

Modeling Mercury's exosphere suggests strong variations of helium emission along the planet's orbit

Emission from helium atoms in Mercury's exosphere at 58.4 nm was observed by the Mariner 10 spacecraft in the 1970s. This emission is due to resonant scattering of solar radiation on the helium atoms escaping from its solid surface and forming an exosphere. Since Mercury's orbit is ellipsoidal, solar radiation and wind fluxes on Mercury vary along its orbit. Furthermore, the flux of the solar He I 58.4 nm emission observed on Mercury varies with Mercury's radial velocity with the Sun. Using model simulations based on the Monte-Carlo model, we demonstrated how Mercury's exospheric He I 58.4 nm emission varies due to the periodic changes in solar radiation and wind. The model results indicate that the He I 58.4 nm brightness varies by between one and three orders of magnitude along the planet's orbit. These findings are strongly dependent on the intrinsic line width of the solar He I 58.4 nm emission. Although this variation has never been observed because Mariner 10 only sampled emission near Mercury's aphelion, we expect this variation to be observable by new space missions, such as BepiColombo and Hisaki. Our results are also important for the characterization of exoplanets with ultraviolet space missions.

The paper reporting these results was published by Astronomy & Astrophysics as a Letter to the Editor:

Yoneda, M., Berdyugina, S.V., Dima, G. 2021, Mercury's exospheric HeI 58.42 nm emission: Dependence on the orbital phase, A&A, 654, L7


A modeled Mercury's exosphere due to helium atoms escaping the solid planetary surface under the solar wind and UV radiation (Yoneda et al. 2019).