Mercury: sometimes a moist, organic-rich world

Full-color image of from first MESSENGER flyby

Full-colour image of Mercury from MESSENGER  (credit: NASA via Wikipedia)

Astronomers welcomed in 2013 by suggesting from Kepler spacecraft data that the Milky Way galaxy alone probably hosts at least a hundred billion extrasolar planets and that a potentially habitable world the size of Earth probably lies within 20 light years of ours (go.nature.com/pxgbbt). OK, so there are at least 10-15 planets out there for every person likely to be alive by the mid-21 century when the technology becomes available to judge whether or not any of them hold a shred of interest for a population facing worsening living conditions right here.

Mercury is closer and currently being peered at in considerable detail by NASA’s MESSENGER mission to the Sun’s closest planet. The venture seems to have justified itself – and probably JAXA/ESA’s forthcoming BepiColumbo to be launched in 2015, arriving in 2022 – by showing that the long suspected ‘cold traps’ at Mercury’s poles have indeed trapped something: ice and abundant organic debris (Neuman, G.A . and 10 others 2013. Bright and dark polar deposits on Mercury: evidence for surface volatiles. Science, v. 339, p. 296-300).

The planet is exceeding rough, having been hit by objects of all sizes yet possessing insufficient internal energy to repave itself. Its axis of rotation is at a right angles to Mercury’s orbital plane, much like that of the Moon, so its polar regions are perpetually short of solar radiation. Deeply shadows places have been measured by infrared radiometry to be as cold as 25 degrees above absolute zero. Any volatile materials that might have landed in them or condensed there from earlier atmospheres might seem likely to stay there indefinitely. Not quite so, for the most likely compound, water ice, can sublimate away (shift directly from the solid to vapour state). Nevertheless, remote sensing shows the north pole region to be somewhat mottled dark and light on shadowed poleward-facing surfaces. The properties of backscattered radar beams and detection of emitted neutrons are consistent with the bright areas being water ice (Lawrence, D.J. and 12 others 2013. Evidence for water ice near Mercury’s north pole from MESSENGER neutron spectrometer measurements. Science, v. 339, p. 292-296). First estimates give a total ice volume of around 10 to 1000 km3 compared with almost 3 million km3 in the Greenland ice cap.

It’s the dark stuff that sets Mercury apart from, say, the Martian or lunar poles, the idea being that comets or icy asteroids impacting Mercury would have delivered complex organic compounds as well as water ice. This would temporarily give otherwise airless Mercury an atmosphere of volatiles parts of which might condense in the perpetually shaded parts of the polar region. Sublimation of exposed ice would have left a residue rich in those organic compounds that eventually protected deeper ice from fading away with time.

Now, imagine how supremely excited exo-planet hunters would be if they picked up such signals from a truly far-off world.

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