New pictures of water ice at Mercury’s north pole — the first such optical images ever — could help scientists better understand how water came to planets in the rest of the Solar System, including Earth. The image you see above came courtesy of NASA’s MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft.
Mercury is a hot planet (it’s the closest one to the Sun), so the only way the ice survives is in deep shadow. This makes it hard to spot unless scientists use some clever techniques. In this case, they examined some scattered light from Prokofiev, the biggest crater in Mercury’s north pole suspected to hold the deposits.
The pictures show that Prokofiev’s surface water ice likely arrived after the craters underneath. And in an intriguing find, there is probably other water ice sitting under dark materials believed to be “frozen organic-rich compounds,” stated the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
“This result was a little surprising, because sharp boundaries indicate that the volatile deposits at Mercury’s poles are geologically young, relative to the time scale for lateral mixing by impacts,” stated lead researcher Nancy Chabot, the Instrument Scientist for MESSENGER’s Mercury dual imaging system.
“One of the big questions we’ve been grappling with is ‘When did Mercury’s water ice deposits show up?’ Are they billions of years old, or were they emplaced only recently?”, added Chabot, who is a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland. “Understanding the age of these deposits has implications for understanding the delivery of water to all the terrestrial planets, including Earth.”
Another intriguing property comes when scientists compare Mercury to the Moon: because the ice looks different on both relatively atmosphere-less bodies, scientists believe the water came more recently to the Moon. But more study is required.
Results were published recently in the journal Geology.