The new data collected by a space probe indicates Mercury's magnetic field could be 3.9 billion years old or some 400 million years older than even Earth's own magnetosphere.
In one of its final acts before plowing into the surface of Mercury at more than 8,700 mph, NASA's MESSENGER mission determined the planet's magnetic field is older than we thought.
MESSENGER only recently got close enough to notice; it captured the readings at just 9 miles above the surface of the planet.
NASA Messenger Mercury
Mercury's magnetic field is way older than we thought
A view of the planet Mercury from the MESSENGER spacecraft, which stands for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging. (Photo via NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)
Ten years ago, on August 3, 2004, NASA’s MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) spacecraft blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, for a risky mission that would take the small satellite dangerously close to Mercury’s surface, paving the way for an ambitious study of the planet closest to the Sun. (Photo via NASA)
A solar flare erupted on the far side of the sun on June 4, 2011, and sent solar neutrons out into space. (Photo via NASA/STEREO/Helioviewer)
South America and portions of North America and Africa are shown in this false-color image from NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft, taken on an Aug. 2, 2005 Earth flyby to adjust the spacecraft's path to Mercury. (Photo via NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)
This color image, taken on May 1, 2013 by the Wide Angle Camera (WAC) instrument aboard NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft orbiting Mercury, features Hovnatanian crater, named for Armenian painter Hakop Hovnatanian. (Photo via NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)
This new, high-resolution view of Cunningham crater was recently acquired by MESSENGER. What you can't see in this image, which shows striking details of the crater's interior, is the extensive set of rays associated with Cunningham. The bright rays of Cunningham indicate that the crater is relatively young, having formed on Mercury likely within the last billion years. In this new view, the preserved terraces of the crater walls, the well-defined central peak, and the limited number of overlying small craters are also all signs of Cunningham's relative youth. (Photo via NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics)
This colorful view of Mercury was produced by using images from the color base map imaging campaign during MESSENGER's primary mission. These colors are not what Mercury would look like to the human eye, but rather the colors enhance the chemical, mineralogical, and physical differences between the rocks that make up Mercury's surface. (Photo via NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)
The crater at the center of this scene is named for choreographer George Balanchine, as the beautiful swath of diffuse blue ejecta emanating from the crater might remind one of the famous blue tutus in one of Balanchine's most well known ballets, Serenade. (Photo via NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)
This image of Mercury, acquired by the Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS) aboard NASA's MESSENGER mission on April 23, 2013, allows us to take a step back to view the planet. Prior to the MESSENGER mission, Mercury's surface was often compared to the surface of Earth's moon, when in fact, Mercury and the moon are very different. (Photo via NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)
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Catherine Johnson, planetary scientist and author of a paper on the new findings, explains:
"The signals we detected are really small, and very, very hard to measure," She told Space.com. "We'd never have been able to measure them if not for these really risky low-altitude observations in the last few months of the MESSENGER mission."
At one point, Mercury's field could have been just as strong as Earth's, even though it's only a third of the size of our planet. Today the field is about 1 percent the strength of Earth's.
The magnetic field is thought to exist thanks to the flow of liquid metal at Mercury's core, which is the same geodynamic process that generates our field here on Earth. Mercury is the only other rocky planet in the solar system with a magnetic field generated this way.
MESSENGER's magnetic data gives planetary scientists new insight into the formation and early lifespan of Mercury and planets like it. They detailed their findings in the journal Science.
And while all that remains of MESSENGER is a smoking crater on Mercury's surface, later missions are expected to gather more data about Mercury's magnetism.
BepiColombo, a joint Japanese and European Space Agency mission named for Italian scientist Giuseppe Colombo, is scheduled to launch for Mercury's orbit in 2017.