Ice Found on Mercury

Ice Found on Mercury

Many aspects of the planet Mercury have remained a mystery to scientists. While vast amounts of knowledge were being accumulated about Venus and Mars, Mercury was left unexplored. The limits of modern science in the 1960‘s and beyond forced the idea of exploring Mercury to be shelved until very recently. Though previously hindered by the extreme heat and distance of Mercury from Earth, the 2004 MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging) program would create the first opportunity for scientists to get a close up view of the planet. From Mercury’s orbit, Messenger was able to take photographs that hopefully would provide insight into the planet and its history. The result is over 20,000 images that allowed for a detailed view of Mercury’s surface and the geological features that accompany it. The pictures also revealed a feature that scientists would have previously considered unimaginable; ice.

Prior to the findings of Messenger, many theories about Mercury were based more on common sense and speculation than actual data. The fact that the planet is located so near to the sun, led many scientists to believe that the planet was a charred mass with a lava concentrated center. According to this theory, a planet as hot as Mercury would then not be able to support any type of water. Although this long accepted theory was logical, recent data suggests that it is widely incorrect. Recent findings have led scientists to conclude that Mercury is potentially covered with portions of ice. This surprising discovery was made by the MESSENGER probe, and subsequently crushed many preconceived notions about the planet. The ice was discovered in areas of impact craters near Mercury’s poles. The amount of ice on Mercury is believed to be greater than that on our moon, however; with temperatures as high as 427°C, it seems nearly impossible for ice to survive. Scientists have formulated an explanation to this seeming contradiction. Though the planet is under a constant barrage from the sun, there are portions of the planet that lie permanently in shadow. The north and south poles of Mercury are two examples of these areas, explaining for the presence of the ice.

The implications of this discovery go far beyond the issue of frozen water. Many of the photos sent from MESSENGER are completely changing the way scientists understand the planet Mercury. Though the planet would seem to be without much personality, due to the fact that it is so close to the sun, it actually has a variety of mysteries. Mercury is one of the densest planets in our solar system, along with being the smallest planet to have a magnetic field. The fact that there are ice sheets on the planet’s poles only adds to Mercury’s intrigue. As time goes on, and hopefully with more help from the MESSENGER probe and other sources, scientists can solve the mystery of Mercury and understand what cosmic events led to the planet being the way it is seen today.




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