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227 × 183 × 18 mm
176 pages
99 illustrations, 40 in colour
12 Nov 2018

Mercury William Sheehan

The last of the five naked-eye planets discovered in ancient times, Mercury has long been an elusive, enigmatic world. As seen from the Earth, it never emerges far from the Sun, and astronomers in the telescopic era found it challenging to work out such basic data as its rotation period, the inclination of its axis, and whether or not it possessed an atmosphere.
In this up-to-date and beautifully illustrated volume, William Sheehan brings our understanding of the planet into clear focus. He deftly traces the history from the earliest observations right up to the most recent explorations using radar and spacecraft. The planet has been surveyed in great detail, revealing vast volcanic plains, water-ice deposits in craters near the poles, and a remarkable core having the highest iron content of any body of the Solar System. A fascinating world in its own right, Mercury also holds important clues for scientists attempting to better understand the origin and evolution of the Earth.

‘Mercury, the Solar System’s innermost planet, was spotted in antiquity but remained an enigma until the 1960s. Science historian William Sheehan’s portrait of the body (known in ancient Greece as the “scintillating one” for its flicker) reveals it as an airless iron world with an eccentric orbit. He interleaves discoveries, from Johannes Kepler’s prediction of a transit of Mercury in the seventeenth century to NASA’s MESSENGER probe, which relayed gorgeous images and data (such as the presence of a wealth of volatile compounds on the surface) before crashing on the planet in 2015.’ — Nature

‘Sheehan's history of observation and discovery is recommended reading . . . The journey to Mercury, seen through time's telescope, has been an undertaking of centuries.’ — Natural History

‘There are fewer than two dozen books devoted to Mercury and this new one is easily the best introduction to the innermost planet, published at a time when a new space mission is underway. In six engaging chapters Bill Sheehan takes us on an historical path of discovery, from a time when the planet was merely a shy, naked eye enigma to the revelation of the iron-cored and battered rocky world explored by Mariner and Messenger . . . After a thorough survey of the surface of Mercury – revealed in its geographical and geological entirety only since 2009 – Sheehan concludes with an engaging history of the still more enigmatic world of Vulcan, the mythical innermost planet . . . Rich in anecdote and illustration, this is a fine new book which is to be strongly recommended.’ — Journal of the British Astronomical Association

‘Sheehan has done a great job of pulling together all the genuinely interesting facts about Mercury – in a serious, well-sourced style that’s easy to read without talking down to the reader – while resisting the temptation to pad the text out with unnecessary details. Add to that top-quality production standards and some lovely photographs from the Mariner and Messenger missions, and the result is a book that easily convinced me the Solar System’s “least interesting” planet is still a pretty fascinating place.’ — Popular Science

‘In this fully up-to-date and beautifully illustrated account, William Sheehan describes the growth of our knowledge of planet Mercury. From the puzzles it posed for early astronomers to radar studies in the 1960s, and from the first spacecraft fly-bys by the Mariner 10 probe in the 1970s to the latest images from the Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) orbital mission between 2011 and 2015, Mercury has slowly been brought into clear focus.’ — Fahrenheit, Pop Science Book Club

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William Sheehan is a noted historian of astronomy, and amateur astronomer who has been an observer of Mercury and the other planets for many years. He has published numerous books on astronomy, including Planets and Perception (1988), The Immortal Fire Within: The Life and Work of Edward Emerson Barnard (1995), The Planet Mars (1996), Galactic Encounters and Celestial Shadows (both 2015) and Discovering Pluto (2018). He lives in Arizona, and asteroid 16037 is named Sheehan in his honour.


The Scintillating One

Motions of Mercury

Through the Telescope


Mercury Up Close


Appendix I: Glossary

Appendix II: Basic Data

Appendix III: Craters


Further Reading


Photo Acknowledgements