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NASA Space Science

MESSENGER Probe Finds Strong Evidence of Ice On Mercury 80

Posted by timothy
from the spun-rapidly-not-shaken dept.
The Bad Astronomer writes "Just in time for the holiday season, the NASA space probe MESSENGER appears to have all but confirmed the existence of ice at Mercury's north pole. Ice has long been suspected to be hiding in permanently shadowed areas in deep craters at the planet's pole, but new data show several converging lines of evidence (thermal and visible light mapping, radar, neutron emission) that as much as a trillion tons of ice may be buried just centimeters deep under the surface. Scientists also see evidence of organic (carbon-based) molecules as well. That's not life, but it's more of an indication that volatile compounds can exist on the solar system's innermost planet." Further, astroengine writes "New results from the MESSENGER spacecraft not only confirm that the planet closest to the sun has ice inside shaded craters near the north pole, but that a thin layer of very dark organic material seems to be covering a good part of the frozen water. Both likely arrived via comets or asteroids millions — or hundreds of millions — of years ago."
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MESSENGER Probe Finds Strong Evidence of Ice On Mercury

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  • by StefanJ (88986) on Thursday November 29, 2012 @06:01PM (#42135215) Homepage Journal

    It would be expensive, because of the high delta-V required to match Mercury's orbit around the sun, but we should really get a lander down there.

    One that can take core samples, and that has a sophisticated chemistry lab.

    Or perhaps several landers / core samplers, with the ability to send samples to a central lab module.

    The ice, and the carbon material covering it, would contain a history of comet impacts, captured dust samples, and other events.

    • What about sending a missile of some kind directly to the surface of mercury and then analyzing what it kicked up from a non-orbiting position? A bit more violent, and no "hands on" chemistry, but would be much cheaper.
      • by Baloroth (2370816) on Thursday November 29, 2012 @06:31PM (#42135477)

        That would be tricky. Mercury's gravity is a little more than 1/3rd Earth's, so you'd have to hit the surface pretty damned hard to get the debris high enough to make it worth doing. Worse, the kickup would scatter debris all over the surface, contaminating other craters and interesting locations with debris, some of it from the Earth missile. The last part alone would make it a rather terrible idea.

        • by Nyder (754090)

          That would be tricky. Mercury's gravity is a little more than 1/3rd Earth's, so you'd have to hit the surface pretty damned hard to get the debris high enough to make it worth doing. Worse, the kickup would scatter debris all over the surface, contaminating other craters and interesting locations with debris, some of it from the Earth missile. The last part alone would make it a rather terrible idea.

          I don't get it. If gravity is less then earths, you would think that stuff would fly higher and farther since it doesn't have as much gravity to hold it down.

          • I don't get it. If gravity is less then earths, you would think that stuff would fly higher and farther since it doesn't have as much gravity to hold it down.

            The tactic of slamming something into a comet worked because the comet had basically no real gravity to keep debris from flying, where mercury has quite a bit more gravity. While it is only about 1/3 of that of earth, the implication isn't that we can pull this trick off on Earth. Debris from a comet will fly in a fairly straight path out of the point of impact, but debris on Mercury will fly in a more parabolic path.

            • by Anonymous Coward
              It doesn't matter how far the debris flies unless you are trying to catch some. All that would matter is that it was heated up enough to do spectroscopic analysis on the emissions, and possibly how deep your impactor heats material up to those temperatures. If anything, having it spread out quickly would lessen the intensity of light from spreading out and cooling. Maybe you would gain something from seeing how far it spreads out, but that can taken into account whatever gravity is there.
    • by mcgrew (92797) *

      It would be expensive, because of the high delta-V required to match Mercury's orbit

      Thank you, I was wondering why we don't already have a lander there. However, it seems like a Mercury orbiter would be more expensive than say, a Mars orbiter. If we can put an orbiter there, why not a robot? I'd always assumed it was the heat, but this pretty much says that the north pole of Mercury isn't all that hot.

  • ...oh, wait. I thought it said mice on Mercury. My bad.

  • Human Colonies (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Tablizer (95088) on Thursday November 29, 2012 @06:04PM (#42135235) Homepage Journal

    The article focuses on life, but perhaps ice also means Mercury could harbor human colonies. Most people think of Mercury as big oven, but there are probably Goldilocks areas near such "ice craters" where the temperature is just right, and near water sources to boot. It could end up being a better place for colonization than Mars because Mars' ice is mostly in cold areas only.

    I just wonder about solar radiation.

    • by multiben (1916126)
      I think it's unlikely. Mercury's surface temperatures fluctuate wildly. 400+ Celsius during the day and as low as -200 celsius at night.
      • Re:Human Colonies (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Tablizer (95088) on Thursday November 29, 2012 @06:13PM (#42135309) Homepage Journal

        But there may be spots at mountain or crater peaks/edges that get roughly even portions of sun both night and day. The sun would stay low to the horizon, lighting only half the peak at any given time. Perhaps the colony would have to live mostly under-ground to even out the temperatures.

      • Depends on where you are.

        If ice is hanging around at the poles, then it stands to reason that the poles never see sunlight. If you could get up a colony in the permanent dark area, but plonk down some temperature-tolerant solar panels in the areas which get lit (and a couple of reactors to keep things warm during the 'night' periods)? It is (minus radiation concerns) theoretically doable.

        • wee correction - certain areas at the poles never see sunlight.

          It's easier in this context to make heat than to dump off the excess, afterall.

        • If you could get up a colony in the permanent dark area, but plonk down some temperature-tolerant solar panels in the areas which get lit (and a couple of reactors to keep things warm during the 'night' periods)?

          Or just make it a solar thermal power plant with a large heat accumulator. That would be very much "temperature tolerant". Indeed, it would be a thermophilic design, so as to speak. :-)

        • magnetic field (Score:5, Interesting)

          by slew (2918) on Thursday November 29, 2012 @06:36PM (#42135537)

          It is (minus radiation concerns) theoretically doable.

          A couple things in Mercury's favor. First, Mercury has an "earth-like" magnetic field (unlike venus and mercury). Second the "tilt" is pretty small so, near the poles you could probably reasonably straddle the day/night region.

          The big down side, (that others have mentioned), is you got this big gravity pit near you and no atmosphere for braking, so getting stuff from Earth to Mercury is gonna be much more expensive than other places in the solar system.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by ColdWetDog (752185)

            How about we get our asses to Mars first? Then worry about the really difficult places.

          • A couple things in Mercury's favor. First, Mercury has an "earth-like" magnetic field (unlike venus and mercury).

            Usually the advantage implied by a magnetic field in these contexts is protection from space weather, and on that measure Venus's thick atmosphere more than outweighs its lack of a magnetic field. Not only are you protected from high energy particles by all that CO2, but even a large portion of visible light is blocked. Venus's surface daytime illumination is much less than Earth's on average despite being nearer to the Sun.

            • wat

              Nobody particularly cares about radiation if they're sitting at the bottom of a 50-km-deep, 700 Kelvin, 90-bar autoclave.

          • by Anonymous Coward
            While Mercury does have a magnetic field, I normally don't see it referred to as Earth-like. Usually there are three categories of interaction between the solar wind and a planet: like Earth and Jupiter with a large, well developed magnetosphere, like the moon and Mars where there is virtually no magnetism and it is all interaction of the solar wind directly with surface or atmosphere, and then like Mercury. Mercury's field is about 1% as strong as Earth, which can mostly form a magnetosphere, but in the
          • On the bright side (ahem), there's a lot of solar energy available for running plasma thrusters. Or roll out a big solar-sail parachute.

      • by Hadlock (143607)

        And yet, if you dig straight down anywhere on planet earth 50 ft, it's a comfortable 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Much like your kitchen stove and living room, the stove can get very hot, but has very little effect on the other due to differences in thermal mass.

        Somewhere near the bottom of the crater, there's a very good chance that there's cracks or caves soaked in organically rich liquid water somewhere under the surface. That kind of stable incubator is better suited for life than the six week old sa

      • I think it's unlikely. Mercury's surface temperatures fluctuate wildly. 400+ Celsius during the day and as low as -200 celsius at night.

        Vin Diesel could live there just fine with a dagger, a short bit of rope, and a pair of dark goggles. AFTER he killed you with his coffee cup, that is...

      • Re:Human Colonies (Score:4, Interesting)

        by MozeeToby (1163751) on Thursday November 29, 2012 @06:40PM (#42135579)

        A walking colony could work though. You'd have to guarantee that your colony could continually move at the speed of the terminus, but if you put it close to the poles that wouldn't really be much of a problem once the route is established. Even at the equator you're only talking 5km/h, a brisk walking speed. There were some semi-serious proposals to lay rails down and let the heat expansion of the rail behind you push your colony forward so that you're in a constant dawn.

        Or just build your colony underground, with the entrance positioned to always be in shade.

        • by deimtee (762122)
          If you have a travelling colony I really think you'd want to set it up so that you are in constant sunset. It is much easier to survive cold, and repair things in the dark than in an oven.
      • by wvmarle (1070040)

        They're talking about craters at the poles, where the sun never reaches the bottom. Always cold in there, and no atmosphere to convey heat from one part to another.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by formfeed (703859)
        Definitely no colonies. I just checked the county's website: Mercury is poisonous for humans.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      perhaps ice also means Mercury could harbor human colonies.
      Perhaps but regardless there are a number of people I can think of that we should send anyway. You know on a trial and error kind of basis "well we believe there may be oxygen their Mr Bieber but would you mind going and finding out for us? Thanks!"

      • by sribe (304414)

        Here, let me fix that for you:

        Perhaps but regardless there are a number of people I can think of that we should send anyway. You know on a trial and error kind of basis "well we believe there may be oxygen their Mr Boehner but would you mind going and finding out for us? Thanks!"

    • Re:Human Colonies (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Indy1 (99447) <spamtrap@fuckedregime.com> on Thursday November 29, 2012 @06:13PM (#42135307) Homepage

      Mercury is in a nasty gravity well. It takes a LOT of energy per pound to land anything there.

      Not going to easy to land significant mass there.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      There is a huge delta-v to go to Mercury and back. Mars is far easier. Even Europa in the gravity well of Jupiter would require less energy for transit back and forth.

  • NASA: "Maybe the probe carried the ice from Earth and contaminated Mercury."

    Probe: "Hell no, I'm just the MESSENGER!"
         

  • It would be fun if extraterrestrial life were to be found on Mercury before or in addition to Mars. This would make the probability of extrasolar life skyrocket, no?

  • Too bad the BepiColombo's MSE (mercury surface element) probe was cancelled.

    As I recall it was suppose to land near the north pole (since Mercury's axis tilt is small, near north pole would be an ideal spot, not too hot, not too cold).

  • UNK, TURN SHIP UPSIDE DOWN.

  • ... of one of these articles saying "that's not life", instead of teasing dummies with visions of bug-eyed aliens dancing everywhere under creation.

  • So then logically at once specific point on the border between the dark, icy pole and the blazing surface, it's a beautiful 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Sweeeet.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Now all we need is whiskey and its ready to go....

  • Please, just leave it there [wikia.com].

  • I'll believe it when they prise the ice out of Mercury's cold dead craters...
  • http://www.amazon.com/Battle-Mercury-Winston-Science-Fiction/dp/B000OP9M4Q [amazon.com]

    Lester Del Rey under a psuedonym and it had not only ice on the dark side of Mercury, but also Frozen Oxygen.
    • by mcgrew (92797) *

      When Del Rey wrote that book, it was thought that Mercury had one face that faced the sun, but they've since found that it rotates slowly.

  • If there are girls there, I bet they're HOT ;-)

  • I did a cursory goog, and got the impression that the delta-V to Mercury is 1/6th of the delta-V to Mars. Mercury is down the hill from us, not uphill. Mercury would seem to have the added benefit of having 10x the initial solar radiation available for running a sail. I'm a little disappointed to see this topic get so few posts. Mercury has a lot to offer from an explorational perspective. Plentiful energy, a B-field, easy to get to.... much more interesting than Mars in many ways.
    • by dotmax (642602)
      I should not google things before i drink my coffee... I completely messed up my delta-v estimate. You are all right, mercury is a difficult target. It would still be worth it... maybe a solar sail or electrostatic decelerator for free delta-V?

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