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November 30, 2012

NASA: Closest planet to sun harbors ice

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Just in time for Christmas, scientists have confirmed a vast amount of ice at the north pole — on Mercury, the closest planet to the sun.

The findings are from NASA’s Mercury-orbiting probe, Messenger, and the subject of three scientific papers released Thursday by the journal Science.

The frozen water is located in regions of Mercury’s north pole that always are in shadows, essentially impact craters. It’s believed the south pole harbors ice as well, though there are no hard data to support it.

“If you add it all up, you have on the order of 100 billion to 1 trillion metric tons of ice,” said David Lawrence of the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University. “The uncertainty on that number is just how deep it goes.”

The ice is thought to be at least 1 1/2 feet deep — and possibly as much as 65 feet deep.

There’s enough polar ice at Mercury to bury an area the size of Washington, D.C., by two to 2 1/2 miles deep, said Lawrence, the lead author of one of the papers.

For two decades, radar measurements taken from Earth have suggested the presence of ice at Mercury’s poles. Now scientists know for sure, thanks to Messenger, the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury.

The water almost certainly came from impacting comets, or possibly asteroids. Ice is found at the surface, as well as buried under a dark material.

Messenger was launched in 2004 and went into orbit one-and-a-half years ago around Mercury, where temperatures reach 800 degrees. NASA hopes to continue observations well into next year.

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