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MESSENGER discovers ice at Mercury’s poles

NASA’s probe to Mercury has found evidence of water, albeit in solid form, on the planet in the solar system that is closest to the sun.

From an agency announcement:

Three independent lines of evidence support this conclusion: the first measurements of excess hydrogen at Mercury’s north pole with MESSENGER’s Neutron Spectrometer, the first measurements of the reflectance of Mercury’s polar deposits at near-infrared wavelengths with the Mercury Laser Altimeter (MLA), and the first detailed models of the surface and near-surface temperatures of Mercury’s north polar regions that utilize the actual topography of Mercury’s surface measured by the MLA.


The discovery may seem counter-intuitive, given Mercury’s high daytime surface temperatures. Though the thermometer can reach 800 degrees Fahrenheit on the side of the planet facing the sun, the planet’s north pole is permanently shielded from the nearby star.

Ice can be visually observed in the region between about the same latitude on Mercury (85 degrees North) as the Tropic of Cancer on Earth (90 degrees North) and the pole. 

The probe has not confirmed evidence of ice at Mercury’s south pole.

MESSENGER, which launched in Aug. 2004, will experience orbital decay by 2015 as its fuel supply runs out. During its close approach to Mercury’s surface it may be possible to make more detailed observations of frozen water on our solar system’s inner-most planet.

ImageMosaic image of ice within craters near Mercury’s north pole courtesy NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington/National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, Arecibo Observatory.


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