NASA announces new evidence for water ice at Mercury’s poles

// November 30th, 2012 // Astronomy and Space News


Planet Mercury

Scientist have long speculated that ice existed on the planet Mercury. Radio waves bounced off the planet decades ago indicated many bright spots on the planet’s surface.  Scientist were reluctant to conclude that the white areas were ice though.  The white reflection could have been silicate, sulfur, or other highly-reflective substances. Today, a new analysis of neutron-spectrometry data returned by the Messenger probe has confirmed that ice exists near the planet’s poles – lots of ice.  Even though temperatures on Mercury can exceed 800-degrees, deep craters near the planet’s poles keep the temperatures cool, as low as 370 degrees below zero, and in these craters there exists ice. Evidence of large pockets of ice, as much as 100 billion tons, is apparent from a latitude of 85 degrees north up to the pole, with smaller deposits of ice scattered as far away as 65 degrees north.

When Messenger passed close to Mercury’s surface, it counted the number of neutrons flying off its surface. Knowing that neutrons colliding with hydrogen atoms tend to stop, they reasoned that a low return of neutrons over the bright areas would indicate the presence of water (H2O) while a high return would indicate some other substance.  When Messenger passed over the bright areas near Mercury’s north pole, the number of neutrons did indeed drop.  The same sort of test was used to detect the presence of water below the surface of Mars and within craters on the Moon.

NASA will redirect the Messenger probe near these area in the coming months in order to make more accurate assessments.  In addition, Messenger’s orbit is expected to begin decaying towards the end of 2014 at which time they will get a much closer view of the planet’s surface.

Sources: NASA
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