Mercury’s Tidally Locked Orbit

Mercury is weird

Mercury’s tidally locked orbit is a good example of how the universe always throws astronomers a few surprises.

The planet is tidally (or gravitationally) locked to our Sun, but this is not the typical “synchronous” tidal locking with a 1:1 ratio of rotation and orbit, such as the Moon and Earth, with the same face always presented to the larger partner. Mercury is locked into a what’s known as a 3:2 spin-orbit resonance, which is unique in our solar system.

The thing about the universe is that things look different from different places. Although Mercury’s orbital period is around 88 Earth days, from Earth it appears to move around its orbit in around 116 days (because we are moving too).

With Mercury’s 3:2 resonance it rotates exactly three times for every two revolutions the planet makes around the Sun. Yet the Sun is also turning. From the Sun’s frame of reference, Mercury appears to rotate only once every two Mercurian years. So the little yellow men who live in the caves there have to wait two years to see a single day go by, or about 176 Earth days. Birthdays must be complicated!

So how did astronomers get the idea that Mercury was synchronously locked to the Sun? This was because whenever Mercury was best placed for observation it was nearly always in the some point in its freaky 3:2 orbital resonance, so was showing the same face to observers on Earth. Since, by coincidence, Mercury’s rotatation (58.7 Earth days) is almost exactly half of its orbital period as observed from Earth (116 days). It was not until the radar observations of the planet in 1965 that astronomers learned the truth of its orbital antics.

Mercury's Tidally Locked Orbit

Thermal underwear a must on Mercury

Mercury has virtually no atmosphere, and is at the mercy of the Sun. Its surface temperature can rise on its equator to 427C (800F) during the day, and plummet to -173C (-280F) at night, while the poles are little more stable at around -93C (-136F). Although the planet has a small tilt, it has the highest orbital eccentricity of all the solar system planets, its orbital distance from closest (perihelion) to furtherest from the Sun (aphelion) varying by as much as 1.5 times.

Like our own Moon, the surface of Mercury is heavily cratered, indicating that the planet has been geologically inactive for billions of years.

My novel, The Tau Ceti Diversion, is a story about our search for new planets to colonise outside our solar system. Much of the action takes place on planet tidally locked to Tau Ceti that has some rather unique characteristics. The novel is due to be launched on September 1st 2016, and pre-order is now available on Amazon! Read more about what happens in the story here!

Stay tuned for a free chapter download, coming soon!

Tau-Ceti-Diversion-severed-ebook-cover (Medium)

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