Mercury in false colors.

NASA Mercury might have as much as 1 Trillion Tons of Pure Water Ice

Mercury in false colors.
Terrence Aym's image for:
"NASA Mercury might have as much as 1 Trillion Tons of Pure Water Ice"
Caption: Mercury in false colors.
Image by: NASA/JPL/Northwestern University
© This file is in the public domain because it was solely created by NASA.

Mercury, the little world closest to the sun is hot, right? It's so hot scientists have been claiming for years that a bar of lead would melt into a pool of lead within a very short period of time.

School textbooks and TV science programs have shown students and audiences how inhospitable a world this planet,—named after the Roman god who carried messages to the other gods—is when compared to the relatively idyllic worlds of the Earth and Mars.

Even the surface of the Moon is less hostile than the hell fires of Mercury, or so it was said…until now.

Without warning amazing new data surfaced that's rocked normally calm NASA scientists back on their heels and triggered excited debates at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Mercury has ice, and lots of it. The little planet has so much ice it might actually have a mind-boggling trillion tons of it!  

A paradox, Mercury is a study of opposites: although the surface temperature can rise to 800 degrees Fahrenheit under the fierce sun, some shadowy craters and deep crevices have icy deposits.

Night brings the deep-freeze and temperatures can plummet to –370 degrees. The small planet whirls about the sun with blazing speed, completing a full revolution in only 88 days. Yet the speed of Mercury's rotation is like Vermont maple syrup during a cold spell: compared to Earth's 24 hours, Mercury takes takes 176 days to completely rotate once. And like Earth's moon, it's atmosphere is almost non- existent.

MESSENGER (Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging), NASA's advanced interplanetary probe, reached Mercury in 2011. The data streaming back to Earth seemed unsurprising. Expectations were confirmed and some at JPL were about ready to nod off when photos began arriving that caused some of the staid scientists to literally leap from their chairs and stalk about excitedly.

Colors splashed across the high resolution screens of a marvelous, and unexpected, alien landscape. Incredible crater formations and strange hollows were discovered.

“NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft has discovered strange hollows on the surface of Mercury,” proclaimed NASA’s official website rejoicing in the find like a new dad announcing the birth of his first baby.  “Images taken from orbit reveal thousands of peculiar depressions at a variety of longitudes and latitudes, ranging in size from 60 feet to over a mile across and 60 to 120 feet deep. No one knows how they got there.”

David Blewett, science team member from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, claims planetary scientists are puzzled. “These hollows were a major surprise. We’ve been thinking of Mercury as a relic—a place that’s really not changing much anymore, except by impact cratering. But the hollows appear to be younger than the craters in which they are found…“

But more momentous discoveries lay ahead.

Near the poles, where temperatures dive to –370 degrees, NASA found ice. Scientists monitoring MESSENGER's data say the amount of ice falls somewhere between 100 billion to one trillion tons.

"Sean C. Solomon, the principal investigator for Messenger, said there was enough ice there to encase Washington, D.C., in a frozen block two and a half miles deep," the New York Times reports. reports
the ice is almost pure water and speculates if Mercury might support life.

So, as NASA's exploration of the planets in the Solar System continues there's now the possibility of life on Mercury, Mars, and Titan, the largest moon of Saturn.

If even one of those heavenly bodies has the merest smidgen of life the odds are very high the entire universe is teeming with life forms also.

More about this author: Terrence Aym

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