Mercury probe confirms the presence of ice at the north pole

Mercury probe confirms the presence of ice at the north pole

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News & Events - Engineering News

November 30, 2012

NASA has revealed that it has discovered a large amount of ice at the north pole, an announcement that would be less than interesting if the location of the frozen substance wasn't millions of miles away.

According to The Associated Press, recent findings released by the space agency reveal that the planet Mercury has an abundance of water, with some experts believing that the planetary polar cap has enough ice to bury an area the size of Washington, D.C. The discovery was made after Messenger, the NASA probe that is currently orbiting the planet, sent back data that confirmed what many scientists and engineers had suspected for years.

"Mercury is becoming the subject of new interest where it wasn't much of one before," said professor Sean Solomon, principal scientist for Messenger, and a member of Columbia University. "The surprise that we received on making the first chemical measurements of Mercury was that none of the theories for how Mercury was assembled are correct."

Mission to Mercury
Before Messenger arrived at the closest planet to the sun, NASA had used radar measurements to look at Mercury's north and south poles. Over a period of twenty years, the data had suggested that the planet did have reserves of water, one of the reasons why the probe was launched in 2004. Since its arrival 18 months ago, Messenger has been constantly orbiting the planetary body and sending its findings back to be analyzed.

With the sun in such close proximity, the temperature can reach up to 800 degrees Fahrenheit and scientists believe that the water formed as a result of comets or asteroids impacting on the surface and creating craters. NASA scientists and engineers have always been aware that these objects are very common throughout the solar system, and that they can have a significant effect on the surface of a planet.

Scientists at NASA also surmised that these asteroids may have been rich in organic material, which was deposited on the plant at the time of impact, leading to the formation of an insulating layer of unknown dark material under which the ice formed.

Exciting results
"These are very exciting results," said David Lawrence of the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University at a news conference. "If you add it all up, you have on the order of 100 billion to 1 trillion metric tons of ice. The ice is thought to be at least one-and-a-half feet deep - and possibly as much as 65 feet deep. There's enough polar ice at Mercury, in fact, to bury an area the size of Washington, D.C., by two to 2½ miles deep."

The results of the findings were published in Science, an academic journal, and have generated wild amounts of speculation about what it means. The discovery of water on Mercury is the latest in a series of revelations about the solar system, and scientists working on the project believe that the Messenger data could provide answers to how water arrived on other planets, while stressing that the images received from the probe in no way indicate the possibility of life.

"The guess is that both the water and the dark material, which we think is organic-rich material, were delivered by the same objects impacting Mercury: some mixture of comets and the kinds of asteroids that are rich in organic and volatile material like water ice," said Solomon "So we're having to rewrite the books on how Mercury was assembled, and by implication how all the inner planets were assembled. The ice at the poles is only a recent chapter in that history but it's one that might be very informative."

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