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Mercury scans The yellow areas in the image above show where Mercury's craters may be hiding ice. (NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Carnegie Institution of Washington / National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, Arecibo Observatory)

Ice Found on Mercury

Scientists discover frozen water on the planet closest to the sun

By Tyrus Cukavac | December 3 , 2012
<p>Messenger was launched in 2004 and entered Mercury’s orbit in 2011. (NASA) </p>

Messenger was launched in 2004 and entered Mercury’s orbit in 2011. (NASA)

In 2004, U.S. government scientists launched the Messenger probe to study the planet Mercury. Last week, researchers on the project reported that the unpiloted spacecraft has discovered evidence of ice—and lots of it!

The ice is likely frozen in a block nearly two-and-a-half miles deep. Scientists at the U.S. space agency NASA believe that from 100 billion to 1 trillion tons of frozen water currently exists on Mercury. That would be enough ice to encase the city of Washington, D.C.

ONE SCORCHING PLANET

Mercury is the planet closest to the sun in our solar system. Because of this, the planet’s surface can reach temperatures of up to 800 degrees Fahrenheit! At those temperatures water would just evaporate, or turn into steam.

However, not all of Mercury is that hot. The planet’s poles (the northernmost and southernmost points on the planet) are pockmarked by deep craters. Some of these are so deep that sunlight never reaches them. As a result, their temperatures are as cold as -370 degrees Fahrenheit. Water there can remain frozen.

David J. Lawrence, a scientist working on the Messenger mission, tells The New York Times, “In these planetary bodies, there are hidden places, as it were, that can have interesting things going on.”

THE HISTORY OF LIFE

In some of the slightly warmer craters, scientists have found ice buried beneath an unusual dark material. They believe this material is made of organic compounds. These chemicals contain the element carbon and are the building blocks of life.

“This organic material may be the same type of organic material that ultimately gave rise to life on Earth,” says David Paige, another scientist with the mission.

Scientists believe that water and these organic compounds are the key ingredients in the formation of living things. The discovery of these compounds on Mercury suggests that they may exist on other nearby planets also. Additionally, the ice found on Mercury may offer a clue as to how life on our own planet began.

“That’s not say to say that we expect to find any life-forms [on Mercury],” says Sean Solomon, the principal investigator of the Messenger mission. “But in terms of the book of life, there are some early chapters, and Mercury may indeed inform us about what’s in those chapters.”

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