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Ice on Mercury? NASA Probe May Solve That Mystery and Others

Posted on: March 31, 2011

A NASA spacecraft now circling Mercury is set to tackle some big mysteries of the scorched, tiny world – including whether or not water ice lurks in its shadowy craters.

NASA’s Messenger probe became the first spacecraft ever to orbit Mercury when it arrived at the planet on March 17. While the spacecraft won’t officially start its yearlong science mission until April 4, the observations it’s already made hint at many discoveries to come, researchers said.

“We’re really seeing Mercury now with new eyes,” Messenger principal investigator Sean Solomon, of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, told reporters today (March 30). “As a result, an entire global perspective is unfolding, and will continue to unfold over the next few months.” [New Photos of Mercury From Messenger]

The search for water ice on the blisteringly hot planet is one of the mission’s driving motivations. Though Mercury’s surface temperatures can top 842 degrees Fahrenheit (450 degrees Celsius), ice may survive on the floors of permanently shadowed polar craters.

And about 20 years ago, radar data first picked up intriguing evidence of reflective materials at Mercury’s poles that might just be water ice, researchers said.

“Could ice be trapped there? The thermal models say yes, it’s possible,” Solomon said. “But is it water ice? There are alternative ideas.”

Messenger will also investigate other questions about Mercury — why it’s so much denser than the other rocky planets, for example. Also, the mission team wants to learn more about how the planet’s core is structured, the nature of its global magnetic field and other aspects of Mercury’s composition and history.

That work will start in earnest next week. In the meantime, scientists are sifting through the spacecraft’s increasing pile of new Mercury photos. By the end of tomorrow, it will have snapped 1,500 photos of the planet from orbit, researchers said — more than it captured during its three previous flybys of the planet in 2008 and 2009.

The first photos

Messenger — whose name is short for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging — is still officially in a commissioning phase, during which time mission scientists are checking out its cameras and other instruments.

But the probe has not been idly waiting for its main mission to start. Messenger snapped the first photos of Mercury from orbit yesterday (March 29), imaging previously unseen areas of the planet — terrain near the poles that Messenger missed on its three flybys.

Read More…

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