Mercury, the solar system’s innermost planet, famously boasts scorching surface temperatures capable of reaching 750F (400C). Now, Georgia Tech has revealed a stunning new explanation for the formation of ice on the tiny planet.
According to the theory, chemicals in the planet’s surface are heated by intense solar radiation.
Applying that chemistry to complicated surfaces like those on a planet is groundbreaking research
Georgia Tech’s Brant Jones
This releases water and hydrogen that can later resettle in deep craters shielded from the sun, where the water transforms to ice.
The frozen substance was originally discovered in 2011 by NASA’s Messenger probe, the first spacecraft to orbit the planet.
Radar images taken by the NASA Messenger revealed large pockets of ice embedded in craters all over both of Mercury’s poles.
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The discovery was a significant surprise given how Mercury is the closest to the Sun in our solar system, with scorching surface temperatures.
The original theory is ice arrived on asteroids, which crashed into the planet’s surface, created craters deep enough to shield the ice from direct exposure to the Sun.
Because Mercury has no atmosphere, the planet’s surface temperature plummets when not directly exposed to sunlight, dropping as low as minus-280 degrees Fahrenheit.
While about 90 percent of the planet’s ice is believed to have come from asteroids, 10 percent formed through natural processes on the planet.
A team of researchers from Georgia Tech’s Center for Space Technology and Research has proposed a new explanation for how this happened.
The soil on Mercury contains a variety of hydroxyl groups.
When heated by solar radiation these begin to slam into each other, in a process releasing both water molecules and hydrogen.
The water and hydrogen are lifted out of the ground soil and some groups of molecules travel as far as the poles where they settle to the surface and form ice deposits in craters where they’re not exposed to the Sun.
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Georgia Tech’s Thomas Orlando told Eurekalert: “It’s a little like the song Hotel California.
“The water molecules can check in to the shadows but they can never leave.”
The mechanics of hydroxyl compounds has long been understood.
But the Georgia Tech team believes their work shows how those mechanisms would work on Mercury.
Georgia Tech’s Brant Jones said: “This is not some strange, out of left field idea.
“The basic chemical mechanism has been observed dozens of times in studies since the late 1960s. But that was on well-defined surfaces.
“Applying that chemistry to complicated surfaces like those on a planet is groundbreaking research.”
The team estimates more than 11 billion tons of ice could have formed on the planet over 3 million years through the hydroxyl transformation process.
The team believes this process could also help explain how ice might potentially form on an asteroid.
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