Video: Ice flourishes on planet near Sun

  1. Closed captioning of: Ice flourishes on planet near Sun

    >>> back with the news from mars, and it is a bit of a disappointment. as we told you last night, one guy at the jet propulsion laboratory where they had that big announcement, had all of our hopes up. sounded like something big. but they say today, so far they found no signs of life , any organic material , on the mars soil, and for space buffs, there is ice on mercury, more than a trillion tons, important because mercury is the closest planet to the sun, but the ice can be found closer to mercury's poles.

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updated 11/29/2012 3:01:40 PM ET 2012-11-29T20:01:40

It's time to add Mercury to the list of worlds where you can go ice skating. Confirming decades of suspicion, a NASA spacecraft has spotted vast deposits of water ice on the planet closest to the sun.

Temperatures on Mercury can reach 800 degrees Fahrenheit (427 degrees Celsius), but around the north pole, in areas permanently shielded from the sun's heat, NASA's Messenger spacecraft found a mix of frozen water and possible organic materials.

Evidence of big pockets of ice is visible from a latitude of 85 degrees north up to the pole, with smaller deposits scattered as far away as 65 degrees north.

The find is so enticing that NASA will direct Messenger's observation toward that area in the coming months — when the angle of the sun allows — to get a better look, said Gregory Neumann, a Messenger instrument scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. [Latest Mercury Photos from Messenger ]

"There is an ongoing campaign, when the spacecraft permits, to look further northward," said Neumann, the lead author of one of three Mercury studies published online Thursday by the journal Science.

Researchers also believe the south pole has ice, but Messenger's orbit has not allowed them to obtain extensive measurements of that region yet.

Messenger will spiral closer to the planet in 2014 and 2015 as it runs out of fuel and is perturbed by the sun's and Mercury's gravity. This will let researchers peer closer at the water ice as they figure out how much is there. [Infographic: NASA's Messenger Mission to Mercury]

Similarities to the moon
Speculation about water ice on Mercury dates back more than 20 years.

In 1991, Earth-bound astronomers fired radar signals to Mercury and received results showing there could be ice at both poles. This was reinforced by 1999 measurements using the more powerful Arecibo Observatory microwave beam in Puerto Rico. Radar pictures beamed back to New Mexico's Very Large Array showed white areas that researchers suspected was water ice.

A closer view, however, required a spacecraft. Messenger settled into Mercury's orbit in March 2011, after a few flybys.  Almost immediately, NASA used a laser altimeter to probe the poles. The laser is weak — about the strength of a flashlight — but just powerful enough to distinguish bright icy areas from the darker, surrounding Mercury regolith.

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Neumann said the result was "curious": There were few bright spots inside craters.

Team member John Cavanaugh was pretty sure of what they were finding, Neumann recalled. Cavanaugh had been a part of NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter team, and he had seen a similar strange pattern on Earth's moon when LRO found ice at the lunar poles in 2009.

Flash heating on Mercury would mix nearly all of its ice with the surrounding regolith — as well as with possible organic material borne to the planet by comets and ice-rich asteroids.

"So what you're seeing is the fact that water ice can't survive indefinitely in these locations because the temperatures apparently spike up," Neumann said.

Organics the big surprise
The team expected to find water ice on Mercury. Indeed, Messenger already drew a link this year between permanently shadowed areas on the planet and the "radar-bright" spots seen from Earth.

All researchers needed to do was point their instruments in the right spot, seek out bright areas and then measure the temperature and composition.

Messenger's neutron spectrometer spotted hydrogen, which is a large component of water ice. But the temperature profile unexpectedly showed that dark, volatile materials – consistent with climes in which organics survive – are mixing in with the ice.

"This was very exciting. You are looking for bright stuff, and you see dark stuff – gee, it’s something new," Neumann said.

Organic materials are life's ingredients, though they do not necessarily lead to life itself. While some scientists think organics-bearing comets sparked life on Earth, the presence of organics is also suspected on airless, distant worlds such as Pluto. Scientists say comets carrying organic bits smashed into other planets frequently during the solar system's history.

Researchers are now working to determine if they indeed saw organics on Mercury. So far, they suspect Mercury's water ice is coated with a 4-inch (10-centimeter) blanket of "thermally insulating material," according to Neumann's paper.

It will take further study to figure out exactly what this material is, but Neumann said the early temperature curves could show organic materials such as amino acids.

Follow Elizabeth Howell @howellspace, or Space.com @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook and  Google+.

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Photos: Messenger at Mercury

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  1. First views from orbit

    NASA's Messenger probe is the first spacecraft to orbit the planet Mercury, and it sent back the first pictures taken from orbit on March 29, 2011. This view looks across Mercury's pockmarked surface toward the planet's horizon. Bright rays from Hokusai Crater can be seen running north to south. (NASA / JHU / CIW) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. In living color

    Mercury isn't exactly the solar system's most colorful planet, but you can make out subtle shades in this first color image from Messenger. Major craters on Mercury are named after artists, authors, composers and other creative figures from history. The dominant crater in the picture is known as Debussy. (NASA / JHU / CIW) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Who's where

    This chart shows you the names of notable features in the first picture ever taken by a spacecraft orbiting Mercury. The triangle indicates an area of the planet that had never been imaged before. (NASA / JHU / CIW) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Debussy up close

    A narrow-angle image from NASA's Messenger orbiter focuses in on Debussy Crater, the bright feature at the top of the frame. The bright rays consist of material ejected by the massive impact that created Debussy, and extend for hundreds of miles. (NASA / JHU / CIW) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Way up north

    This Messenger picture shows a heavily cratered region near Mercury's north pole, as seen from an altitude of about 280 miles. The region had never been imaged before. Previous up-close views of Mercury came from flybys, including the Mariner 10 mission in the 1970s and Messenger's pre-orbital encounters. (NASA / JHU / CIW) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Craters upon craters

    This picture of southern terrain on Mercury illustrates what Messenger chief scientist Sean Solomon means when he says "there are so many craters they start to obscure one another." (NASA / JHU / CIW) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Simply beautiful

    The crater near the bottom of this Messenger image is a beautiful example of a relatively small, simple, fresh impact feature on Mercury. The crater is nearly bowl-shaped, with just a small flat area in the center of its floor. The bright ejecta and rays are symmetrically distributed around the crater, indicating that the body that struck Mercury to form the crater approached on a path that was not highly inclined from the vertical. (NASA / JHU / CIW) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Wide-angle view

    Messenger's Wide Angle Camera is not your typical color camera. It is sensitive to 11 bands of color, in visible through near-infrared wavelengths. This WAC image shows several craters on Mercury, with bright rays from Hokusai Crater (to the north) crossing through the scene. (NASA / JHU / CIW) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Smooth plains

    This Messenger image shows an area of Mercury that had not been previously imaged, in Mercury's north polar region. The smooth terrain is pockmarked by craters that cast long shadows. Understanding the interiors of such craters and any ices they may contain is one of the Messenger mission's main science goals. (NASA / JHU / CIW) Back to slideshow navigation
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