Water ice and organic materials were discovered on Mercury by NASA’s Messenger probe, according to a press conference announcement on Thursday.
NASA announced that the planet has at least 100 billion tons of water ice, along with organic material, in permanently shadowed craters at its north pole.
The space agency’s Messenger probe has been orbiting around Mercury — the solar system’s smallest and innermost planet — since 2011, reports Wired.
Scientists have long suspected that water ice may exist on Mercury in such craters since Earth-based measurements were made in 1992 that showed bright areas at the planet’s polar regions. While temperatures on the planet can sometimes reach 800 degrees Fahrenheit, the permanently-shadowed craters allow ice to exist.
Messenger carries a neutron spectrometer, which allows the probe to detect water ice on Mercury. The spectrometer looks at energetic neutrons that bounce off the planet’s surface. Water gives off a unique neutron signature, which the probe picked up near the planet’s north pole.
Not only has the probe discovered water ice, but it has also found dark organic material covering much of the ice on Mercury, notes Discovery News.
Lead Messenger scientist Sean Solomon has given an example of how organic material may have formed on Mercury, saying:
“It could easily have been delivered by comets and asteroids, along with water ice, and may even have darkened in the Mercury environment in response to the intense radiation and space weathering. Certainly the darkness of the covering material was a surprise and the explanation that seems to fit all the data is that it’s organic material. It’s quite interesting.”
While there is no direct evidence that the dark material is organic on Mercury, scientists say that it is the only explanation that fits all of the conditions. The finding could also have implications in the search for life beyond Earth. The requirements for life, as we know it, is organic material, liquid water, and a source of heat.
Are you surprised to hear that water ice and organic materials were discovered on Mercury by NASA’s Messenger probe?
[Image from NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington]