Back in 2012, MESSENGER mission confirmed that Mercury, the planet closest to the Sun, carries ice in the permanently-shadowed craters around the poles. While it is hard to believe the existence of ice on a planet where daytime temperatures reach 200 to 400 degrees Celsius, a new study around how Mercury’s ice is formed is even more baffling.
Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology say that the intense heat from Sun likely helps create some of the ice on Mercury. “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,” said Brant Jones, a researcher in Georgia Tech’s School of Chemistry and Biochemistry and the paper’s first author.
The scientific consensus holds asteroids delivered most of Mercury’s water and the new study says that Mercury’s extreme daytime heat combined with the super-cold temperatures of minus 200-degree Celsius in the permanently shadowed craters might be acting like an “ice-making chemistry lab.”
The mechanism of formation of ice is common knowledge for well-defined surfaces, but applying that chemistry to complicated surfaces like those on a planet is groundbreaking research, Jones said.
How ice forms in Mercury’s shadowed craters
As per the study, minerals in Mercury’s surface soil contain hydroxyl groups (OH) that are generated mainly by the protons. As per the model made by the researchers, the extreme heat helps to free up the hydroxyl groups, which then energises them to smash into each other.
It produces water molecules and hydrogen that lifts off from the surface drifts around the planet. Some of these water molecules are broken down by sunlight or rise far above the planet’s surface, however, other molecules land near Mercury’s poles in permanent shadows of craters that shield the ice from the sun.
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“Mercury does not have an atmosphere and thus no air that would conduct heat, so the molecules become a part of the permanent glacial ice housed in the shadows,” the study said.
It’s like the song Hotel California
“It’s a little like the song Hotel California. The water molecules can check in to the shadows but they can never leave,” said Thomas Orlando, a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Chemistry and Biochemistry and the study’s principal investigator. Orlando co-founded the Georgia Tech Center for Space Technology and Research. “The total amount that we postulate that would become ice is 1013 kilograms over a period of about 3 million years,” Jones said. “The process could easily account for up to 10 per cent of Mercury’s total ice.”
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