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Mercury's Sodium Tail

Mercury sodium tail

Sodium atoms from Mercury's tenuous atmosphere are pushed back by solar radiation pressure to Mercury a long glowing tail. This "sodium tail" was observed by PSI Senior Scientist Jeff Morgenthaler using PSI's Io Input/Output facility (IoIO). IoIO was constructed using funds from the National Science Foundation.

This is the highest spatial resolution image of Mercury's sodium tail ever recorded. It was a very challenging observation, as the sun had barely set, the sky background was constantly changing, and Mercury set within 20 minutes of this emission being observable.

The faint shadow running down the middle of the tail provides an idea of the 3D distribution of the sodium atoms. The precise morphology of the tail gives information on the speed distribution of atoms in Mercury's atmosphere. Pictures like this allow for the study of seasonal variations in Mercury's atmosphere and the effects of solar coronal mass ejections.

June 13, 2018
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