Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics

MESSENGER observations of magnetopause structure and dynamics at Mercury


Corresponding author: G. A. DiBraccio, Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109, USA. (


[1] On 18 March 2011, MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) became the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury, providing a new opportunity to study the outer boundary of the planet's magnetosphere—the magnetopause. Here we characterize Mercury's magnetopause using measurements collected by MESSENGER's Magnetometer and Fast Imaging Plasma Spectrometer. Analysis of measurements from two of MESSENGER's “hot seasons,” when the orbital periapsis is on Mercury's dayside and the magnetopause crossing takes place in the subsolar region, resulted in 43 events with well-determined boundary normals. The typical duration of a magnetopause traversal was ~5 s. The average normal magnetic field component was ~20 nT, and the dimensionless reconnection rate, i.e., the ratio of the normal magnetic field component to the total field magnitude just inside the magnetopause, was 0.15 ± 0.02. This rate is a factor of ~3 larger than values found during the most extensive surveys at Earth. The ratio of the reconnection rate at Mercury to that of the Earth is comparable to the ratio of the solar wind Alfvén speeds at their respective orbits. We also find that the magnetopause reconnection rate at Mercury is independent of magnetic field shear angle, but it varies inversely with plasma β, the ratio of total thermal pressure to magnetic pressure, in the magnetosheath. These results suggest that reconnection at Mercury is not only more intense than at Earth but also that it occurs for nearly all orientations of the interplanetary magnetic field due to the low-β nature of the solar wind in the inner heliosphere.