NASA announced in a press conference/media briefing on Thursday that earlier ideas of the existence of abundant water ice and other frozen materials on Mercury have been observed by instruments on the MESSENGER spacecraft. NASA says that the shadowed craters on the poles of Mercury contain these deposits.
Since Mercury is so close to the Sun, one would think there wouldn’t be any ice on the surface of the planet, but since the tilt of its’ axis is nearly zero, there are craters on the planet’s poles that are permanently in shadow and never see any sunlight. This allows those specific locations to remain very cold and the frozen deposits trapped there. Observations indicate that a layer of ice may also be beneath an unusually dark material that lays on top of most of the deposits, further protecting them from any sunlight. These strong indications show that there is likely water ice on Mercury’s poles.
MESSENGER uses neutron spectroscopy to measure average hydrogen concentrations within Mercury’s radar-bright pole regions. Water ice concentrations are derived from the hydrogen measurements.
MESSENGER, or “MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging,” is the first spacecraft ever to orbit the planet Mercury. It was launched in August 2004 on a mission to study the composition of Mercury, and first reached the planet when it made a flyby in January 2008. MESSENGER successfully entered Mercury’s orbit on March 18, 2011 and began collecting thousands of images and a wealth of data.
The primary objectives of the MESSENGER mission included,
- Accurately determining the surface composition of Mercury.
- Characterizing the geological history of the planet.
- Determining the precise strength of the magnetic field and its variation with position and altitude.
- Investigating the presence of a liquid outer core by measuring Mercury’s libration.
- Determining the nature of the radar reflective materials at Mercury’s poles.
- Investigating the important volatile species and their sources and sinks on and near Mercury.
Stay tuned for more information on this developing story.
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