Observations of Extreme ICME Ram Pressure Compressing Mercury's Dayside Magnetosphere to the Surface


Mercury's magnetosphere is known to be affected by the enhanced ram pressure and magnetic fields inside interplanetary coronal mass ejections (ICMEs). Here we report detailed observations of an ICME compressing Mercury's dayside magnetosphere to the surface. A fast CME launched from the Sun on 2013 November 29 impacted first the MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft, which was orbiting Mercury, on November 30 and later STEREO-A near 1 au on December 1. Following the ICME impact, MESSENGER remained in the solar wind as the spacecraft traveled inwards and northwards toward Mercury's surface until it reached and passed its closest approach to the planet (at 371 km altitude) without crossing into the magnetosphere. The magnetospheric crossing finally occurred 1 minute before reaching the planet's nightside at 400 km altitude and 84°N latitude, indicating the lack of dayside magnetosphere on this orbit. In addition, the peak magnetic field measured by MESSENGER at this time was 40% above the values measured in the orbits just prior to and after the ICME, a consequence of the magnetospheric compression. Using both a proxy method at Mercury and measurements at STEREO-A, we show that the extremely high ram pressure associated with this ICME was more than high enough to collapse Mercury's weak magnetosphere. As a consequence, the ICME plasma likely interacted with Mercury's surface, evidenced by enhanced sodium ions in the exosphere. The collapse of Mercury's dayside magnetosphere has important implications for the habitability of close-in exoplanets around M dwarf stars, as such events may significantly contribute to planetary atmospheric loss in these systems.

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The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series



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