The distribution and origin of smooth plains on Mercury

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Abstract

[1] Orbital images from the MESSENGER spacecraft show that ~27% of Mercury's surface is covered by smooth plains, the majority (>65%) of which are interpreted to be volcanic in origin. Most smooth plains share the spectral characteristics of Mercury's northern smooth plains, suggesting they also share their magnesian alkali-basalt-like composition. A smaller fraction of smooth plains interpreted to be volcanic in nature have a lower reflectance and shallower spectral slope, suggesting more ultramafic compositions, an inference that implies high temperatures and high degrees of partial melting in magma source regions persisted through most of the duration of smooth plains formation. The knobby and hummocky plains surrounding the Caloris basin, known as Odin-type plains, occupy an additional 2% of Mercury's surface. The morphology of these plains and their color and stratigraphic relationships suggest that they formed as Caloris ejecta, although such an origin is in conflict with a straightforward interpretation of crater size–frequency distributions. If some fraction is volcanic, this added area would substantially increase the abundance of relatively young effusive deposits inferred to have more mafic compositions. Smooth plains are widespread on Mercury, but they are more heavily concentrated in the north and in the hemisphere surrounding Caloris. No simple relationship between plains distribution and crustal thickness or radioactive element distribution is observed. A likely volcanic origin for some older terrain on Mercury suggests that the uneven distribution of smooth plains may indicate differences in the emplacement age of large-scale volcanic deposits rather than differences in crustal formational process.

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