Hot and cold planet: NASA's probe finds ice on Mercury near the sun

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A visitor to Mercury would have a magnificent view of the sun from a vantage point of a mere 63 million miles away. That's spitting distance in cosmic terms. Mercury is so close to the sun that its solar winds prevent any atmosphere from developing there. Though it will never be hospitable to tourists, the view of the sun filling Mercury's horizon is awesome.

At 875 degrees fahrenheit, Mercury would be a difficult place to get and stay hydrated. Because it is so hot, liquid water would immediately evaporate. The sun-scarred planet is composed mostly of iron and other heavy metals and is only slightly bigger than our moon. For all intents and purposes, it is a hot, lifeless, hunk of rock where a single day lasts 58 Earth days.

That's why the discovery of enormous supplies of water in the form of ice at both of Mercury's poles and scattered across the planet's dark side is so extraordinary. Mercury's ice deposits are located in deep craters created by water-bearing comets and asteroids that crashed into the planet over millions of years. The ice has accumulated over the eons and is protected by minus-300 degree temperatures on the side of the planet that never experiences the sun's heat.

While scientists are celebrating the excellent work of NASA's orbiting Messenger satellite for making the discovery, no-one expects to find life in Mercury's frozen wasteland. Mercury has what is arguably the harshest planetary environment in the solar system. Without an atmosphere or liquid water, the likelihood of life as we understand it being present there is zero.

Still, it is amazing to learn that even when a red hot planet is a stone's throw from the sun, that it is still possible for it to be as cool as frozen ice.

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