Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Letter
  • Published:

Global resurfacing of Mercury 4.0–4.1 billion years ago by heavy bombardment and volcanism



The most heavily cratered terrains on Mercury have been estimated to be about 4 billion years (Gyr) old1,2,3,4, but this was based on images of only about 45 per cent of the surface; even older regions could have existed in the unobserved portion. These terrains have a lower density of craters less than 100 km in diameter than does the Moon1,3,5, an observation attributed to preferential resurfacing on Mercury. Here we report global crater statistics of Mercury’s most heavily cratered terrains on the entire surface. Applying a recent model for early lunar crater chronology6and an updated dynamical extrapolation to Mercury7, we find that the oldest surfaces were emplaced just after the start of the Late Heavy Bombardment (LHB) about 4.0–4.1 Gyr ago. Mercury’s global record of large impact basins8, which has hitherto not been dated, yields a similar surface age. This agreement implies that resurfacing was global and was due to volcanism, as previously suggested1,5. This activity ended during the tail of the LHB, within about 300–400 million years after the emplacement of the oldest terrains on Mercury. These findings suggest that persistent volcanism could have been aided by the surge of basin-scale impacts during this bombardment.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: The northern heavily cratered terrains of Mercury.
Figure 2: Comparison of Mercury cratering data with key lunar units.
Figure 3: Mercury and lunar crater chronologies.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Strom, R. G. Origin and relative age of lunar and Mercurian intercrater plains. Phys. Earth Planet. Inter. 15, 156–172 (1977)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  2. Leake, M. A. The Intercrater Plains of Mercury and the Moon: their Nature, Origin, and Role in Terrestrial Planet Evolution. PhD thesis, Univ. of Arizona. (1982)

  3. Strom, R. G. & Neukum, G. in Mercury (eds Vilas, F., Chapman, C. R. & Matthews, M. S. ) 336–373 (Univ. Arizona Press, 1988)

    Google Scholar 

  4. Neukum, G., Oberst, J., Hoffmann, H., Wagner, R. & Ivanov, B. A. Geologic evolution and cratering history of Mercury. Planet Space Sci. 49, 1507–1521 (2001)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  5. Fassett, C. I. et al. The global population of large craters on Mercury and comparison with the Moon. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L10202 (2011)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  6. Morbidelli, A. et al. A sawtooth-like timeline for the first billion years of lunar bombardment. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 355–356, 144–151 (2012)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  7. Marchi, S. et al. A new chronology for the Moon and Mercury. Astron. J. 137, 4936–4948 (2009)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  8. Fassett, C. I. et al. Large impact basins on Mercury: global distribution, characteristics, and modification history from MESSENGER orbital data. J. Geophys. Res.. 117, E00L08, (2012)

    Google Scholar 

  9. Wilhelms, D. E. Mercurian volcanism questioned. Icarus 28, 551–558 (1976)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  10. Strom, R. G. et al. Mercury crater statistics from MESSENGER flybys: implications for stratigraphy and resurfacing history. Planet. Space Sci. 59, 1960–1967 (2011)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  11. Shoemaker, E. M. et al. Interplanetary correlation of geologic time. Adv. Astronaut. Sci. 8, 70–89 (1963)

    Google Scholar 

  12. Hartmann, W. K. et al. in Basaltic Volcanism on the Terrestrial Planets (eds McGetchin, T. R., Pepin, R. O. & Phillips, R. J. ) 1049–1127 (Pergamon, 1981)

  13. Neukum, G. & Ivanov, B. A. in Hazards Due to Comets and Asteroids (eds Gehrels, T., Matthews, M. S. & Schumann, A. ) 359–416 (Univ. of Arizona Press, 1994)

    Google Scholar 

  14. Stöffler, D. & Ryder, G. Stratigraphy and isotope ages of lunar geologic units: chronological standard for the inner Solar System. Space Sci. Rev. 96, 9–54 (2001)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  15. Strom, R. G. et al. Mercury cratering record viewed from MESSENGER’s first flyby. Science 321, 79–81 (2008)

    Article  CAS  ADS  Google Scholar 

  16. Head, J. W. et al. Flood volcanism in the northern high latitudes of Mercury revealed by MESSENGER. Science 333, 1853–1856 (2011)

    Article  CAS  ADS  Google Scholar 

  17. Mainzer, A. et al. NEOWISE observations of near-Earth objects: preliminary results. Astrophys. J. 743, 156–173 (2011)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  18. Le Feuvre, M. & Wieczorek, M. A. Nonuniform cratering of the Moon and a revised crater chronology of the inner Solar System. Icarus 214, 1–20 (2011)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  19. Strom, R. G. et al. The origin of planetary impactors in the inner Solar System. Science 309, 1847–1850 (2005)

    Article  CAS  ADS  Google Scholar 

  20. Marchi, S. et al. The onset of the lunar cataclysm as recorded in its ancient crater populations. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 325, 27–38 (2012)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  21. Crater Analysis Techniques Working Group. Standard techniques for presentation and analysis of crater size-frequency data. Icarus 37, 467–474 (1979)

  22. Wilhelms, D. E. The Geologic History of the Moon (US Geological Survey Professional Paper 1348, 1987)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  23. Hartmann, W. K. Does crater ‘saturation equilibrium’ occur in the solar system? Icarus 60, 56–74 (1984)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  24. Bottke, W. F. et al. Debiased orbital and absolute magnitude distribution of the near-Earth objects. Icarus 156, 399–433 (2002)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  25. Bottke, W. F. et al. An Archaean heavy bombardment from a destabilized extension of the asteroid belt. Nature 485, 78–81 (2012)

    Article  CAS  ADS  Google Scholar 

  26. Fassett, C. I. et al. Lunar impact basins: stratigraphy, sequence and ages from superposed impact crater populations measured from Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) data. J. Geophys. Res. 117, E00H06, (2012)

    Google Scholar 

  27. Hiesinger, H., Head, J. W., Wolf, U., Jaumann, R. & Neukum, G. in Recent Advances and Current Research Issues in Lunar Stratigraphy (eds Ambrose, W. A. & Williams, D. A. ) 1–51 (Geological Society of America Special Paper 477, 2011)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  28. Marchi, S. et al. The effects of the target material properties and layering on the crater chronology: the case of Raditladi and Rachmaninoff basins on Mercury. Planet. Space Sci. 59, 1968–1980 (2011)

    Article  CAS  ADS  Google Scholar 

  29. Smith, D. E. The equatorial shape and gravity field of Mercury from MESSENGER flybys 1 and 2. Icarus 209, 88–100 (2010)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  30. Elkins-Tanton, L. T. & Hager, B. H. Giant meteoroid impacts can cause volcanism. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 239, 219–232 (2005)

    Article  CAS  ADS  Google Scholar 

  31. Ivanov, B. A. & Melosh, H. J. Impacts do not initiate volcanic eruptions: eruptions close to the crater. Geology 31, 869–872 (2003)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

Download references


The contributions of S.M. and W.F.B. were supported by the NASA Lunar Science Institute (Center for Lunar Origin and Evolution at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado—NASA Grant NNA09DB32A; Center for Lunar Science and Exploration at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas). S.M. is grateful for being welcomed as a collaborator with the Geology Discipline Group of MESSENGER. C.R.C.’s contribution was supported by the MESSENGER Project. The MESSENGER Project is supported by the NASA Discovery Program under contracts NASW-00002 to the Carnegie Institution of Washington and NAS5-97271 to the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



S.M. and C.R.C. performed the new crater measurements. S.M. and W.F.B. computed the impact rates. C.I.F., J.W.H. and R.G.S. provided earlier crater catalogues. All authors contributed to a discussion of the results and their implications, and to writing and revising the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Simone Marchi.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Text, Supplementary Figures1-4, Supplementary Table 1 and additional references. (PDF 1017 kb)

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Marchi, S., Chapman, C., Fassett, C. et al. Global resurfacing of Mercury 4.0–4.1 billion years ago by heavy bombardment and volcanism. Nature 499, 59–61 (2013).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing