NASA Messenger discovers water on Mercury

Science -

After 20 years of wondering, scientists have finally confirmed the presence of frozen water near Mercury's north pole and, as a bonus, also saw evidence of organic compounds.

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CC BY-ND Flickr
CC BY-ND Flickr

Scientists from NASA's Messenger probe team revealed that they had discovered water ice on the poles of Mercury. According to Messenger's principal investigator, Sean C. Solomon, there's enough ice to cover an area the size of Washington, DC and reach 2.5 miles beneath the surface.

"For more than 20 years the jury has been deliberating on whether the planet closest to the Sun hosts abundant water ice in its permanently shadowed polar regions. [Messenger] has now supplied a unanimous affirmative verdict." Sean Solomon, principal investigator of the Messenger mission

The earliest reports of water on Mercury came in the form of radar imaging in 1991. More detailed images from Puerto Rico's microwave telescope bolstered the claim in 1999.

While the water discovery was no huge surprise, scientists were surprised to find evidence of organic matter. The scans showed that the ice was mixed with a dark, volatile material they believe harbors organic compounds. However, it will take more research to confirm the discovery. Although it doesn't necessarily lead to it, carbon-based organic matter is required for life.

Since temperatures reach up to 800 degrees Fahrenheit, ice seems an unlikely tenant on the surface of Mercury. At the poles, however, temperatures can dip as low as -280 degrees, and scientists say that it's temperate a few feet below the surface elsewhere on Mercury.

Messenger will circle back to Mercury in 2014 and 2015, offering NASA scientists a closer look at the ice deposits on the planet's north pole. The next passes could also offer a look at the south pole, which has been so far obscured during the probe's orbit.

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