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Discovery: Mercury is covered with salt glaciers that could support life

Scientists at the Planetary Science Institute have uncovered compelling evidence suggesting the potential for life on Mercury, particularly at its north pole. Using images from NASA’s MESSENGER probe, the researchers discovered features that appear to be salt glaciers within Mercury’s Raditladi and Eminescu craters. 

Unlike ice formations on Earth, these glaciers would consist of salt compounds that trapped volatiles such as water, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide.

Mercury’s glaciers could harbor life

The formation of the glaciers is attributed to the impact of space rocks on Mercury’s surface. The impacts penetrated the basaltic outer layer, releasing the volatile-rich compounds from beneath the surface. 

Mercury’s extreme temperatures, reaching up to 806°F (430°C) during the day, have since caused the evaporation of these compounds. However, the remnants of the glaciers are identifiable through Earth-like geological features.

“These Mercurian glaciers, distinct from Earth’s, originate from deeply buried Volatile Rich Layers (VRLs) exposed by asteroid impacts. Our models strongly affirm that salt flow likely produced these glaciers and that after their emplacement they retained volatiles for over 1 billion years,” said study co-author Bryan Travis.

This comparison sparks the theory that subsurface areas on Mercury, shielded from the Sun’s intense heat, might harbor conditions conducive to extreme forms of life. 

Goldilocks zones 

“Specific salt compounds on Earth create habitable niches even in some of the harshest environments where they occur, such as the arid Atacama Desert in Chile,” said study lead author Alexis Rodriguez. “This line of thinking leads us to ponder the possibility of subsurface areas on Mercury that might be more hospitable than its harsh surface.” 

“These areas could potentially act as depth-dependent ‘Goldilocks zones,’ analogous to the region around a star where the existence of liquid water on a planet might enable life as we know it, but in this case, the focus is on the right depth below the planet’s surface rather than the right distance from a star.”

The research challenges the notion of Mercury as a planet devoid of volatiles. It suggests that Volatile Rich Layers (VRLs) are potentially hidden beneath the planet’s surface

“A central mystery concerning Mercury revolves around the genesis of its glaciers and chaotic terrains. What mechanism was responsible for the formation of VRLs? In our research, we introduce a model that integrates recent observational data to address this question,” said Rodriguez.

Mercury’s north pole

“Notably, we examine the Borealis Chaos, located in Mercury’s north polar region. This area is characterized by intricate patterns of disintegration, significant enough to have obliterated entire populations of craters, some dating back approximately 4 billion years.” 

“Beneath this collapsed layer lies an even more ancient, cratered paleo-surface, previously identified through gravity studies. The juxtaposition of the fragmented upper crust, now forming chaotic terrain, over this gravity-revealed ancient surface, suggests that the VRLs were emplaced atop an already solidified landscape.”

Challenging long-held theories

Rodriguez said that these findings challenge prevailing theories of VRL formation that traditionally centered on mantle differentiation processes, where minerals separate into different layers within the planet’s interior. 

“Instead, the evidence suggests a grand-scale structure, possibly stemming from the collapse of a fleeting, hot primordial atmosphere early in Mercury’s history. This atmospheric collapse might have occurred mostly during the extended nighttime periods when the planet’s surface was not exposed to the Sun’s intense heat.”

Implications of finding life on Mercury

These insights were made possible through the use of sophisticated models and detailed analysis of observational data. The study represents a significant stride in understanding Mercury’s geological history and its potential to host life.

“This groundbreaking discovery of Mercurian glaciers extends our comprehension of the environmental parameters that could sustain life, adding a vital dimension to our exploration of astrobiology also relevant to the potential habitability of Mercury-like exoplanets,” said Rodriguez.

More about planet Mercury

Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun in our Solar System, presents a unique and fascinating profile. This report delves into various aspects of Mercury, from its orbital characteristics to its surface and environmental conditions.

Orbital and physical characteristics

Distance from Sun: Mercury orbits at an average distance of about 57.9 million kilometers (36 million miles) from the Sun.

Orbital Period: It completes an orbit around the Sun in just 88 Earth days, making its year much shorter than Earth’s.

Rotation: Mercury has a slow rotation on its axis, taking about 59 Earth days to complete one rotation.

Size: It is the smallest planet in our Solar System, with a diameter of about 4,880 kilometers (3,032 miles).

Surface and geological features

Craters and Plains: Mercury’s surface is heavily cratered, similar to the Moon. Notable craters like Caloris Basin, one of the largest in the Solar System, dominate its landscape.

Temperature Extremes: Due to its lack of atmosphere and proximity to the Sun, Mercury experiences extreme temperature fluctuations, ranging from -173°C (-280°F) at night to 427°C (800°F) during the day.

No Plate Tectonics: Unlike Earth, Mercury doesn’t have plate tectonics. Its geological activity has been relatively inactive for billions of years.

Atmosphere and magnetosphere

Exosphere: Mercury possesses a thin exosphere made up of atoms blasted off its surface by the solar wind and micrometeoroid impacts.

Magnetic Field: Despite its small size, Mercury has a significant, albeit weak, magnetic field, about 1% the strength of Earth’s. This field is believed to be generated by its partially molten iron core.

Exploration and research

Missions: Mercury has been a target for several space missions, including NASA’s Mariner 10 and MESSENGER. The European Space Agency’s BepiColombo mission, launched in 2018, is currently en route to study Mercury in more detail.

Scientific Interest: Understanding Mercury is crucial for scientists to learn more about planetary formation and the conditions of the early Solar System.

In summary, Mercury’s proximity to the Sun and its extreme environmental conditions make it an intriguing subject for study. Its unique characteristics, such as its orbital and rotational dynamics and geological history, provide valuable insights into the processes that shape our Solar System.

The ongoing and future missions to Mercury are expected to uncover more secrets of this mysterious planet, enhancing our understanding of the cosmos.

The research was supported by NASA’s Solar System Workings (SSW) Program. The results are published in the Planetary Science Journal.


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