Ancient Mercury Had the Right Stuff For Life, Surprising New Research Suggests

Stylized representation of Mercury.

Stylized representation of Mercury.
Statue: NASA

Mercury, the planet closest to the sun, is one of the last places we think about when considering the potential for life in the solar system. New research suggests that the planet’s interior once contained the basic ingredients for life, a finding that could change the way we look at this roasted, tormented planet.

Despite having no atmosphere and a surface that reaches 430 degrees Celsius (806 degrees Fahrenheit) during the day, Mercury may have once filled a habitable underground layer with the basic building blocks of life, according to new Research published in scientific reports.

This extraordinary claim is supported through the “chaotic terrain” of Mercury, a region of deep valleys, long cracks and sharp mountains. First observed by NASA’s Mariner 10 spacecraft in 1974, scientists hypothesized that the chaotic terrain was the result of a massive sky impact on the other side of the planet and the flurry of earthquakes that followed. The new research, led by Alexis Rodriguez of the Planetary Science Institute, exposes the many cracks in this prevailing theory, while proposing an entirely new hypothesis, suggesting that these strange geological features were formed by vast amounts of volatile materials long attached to Mercury escaped underground. ago.

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Volatiles are compounds, such as water, nitrogen and methane, that switch easily between material situations, such as liquids that turn into gases or solids that turn directly into gases or vapors, a chemical process known as sublimation. For astrobiologists just mentioning that volatiles can be on a celestial body will produce a reaction similar to a dog suddenly noticing a squirrel nearby. Volatiles are prerequisites for life, so the innuendo that Mercury once contained an abundant supply of volatiles, and under potentially dynamic conditions, raises some intriguing questions about Mercury’s ancient past.

It is indeed hard to believe that Mercury could ever have been habitable and even harder to believe that small microorganisms could have that coiled deep below the surface, but the new paper challenges our ideas of which objects in the solar system were once able to promote life. AAt the same time it is offering new exploration goals for astrobiologists.

It is not a bizarre idea that a heavenly impact on the other side of Mercury could have created the chaotic terrain. Pluto’s Sputnik Planitia probably formed of such an event. Long ago, a collision with a large object caused shock waves to pluto’s other side, creating the now iconic heart-shaped function.

For the new study, Rodriguez and colleagues referred to data collected by NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft, which took detailed scans of Mercury’s surface from 2011 to 2015.

Analysis of these data showed that the chaotic terrain formed about 1.8 billion years ago, which is 2 billion years after the aforementioned impact event, evidence of which is still seen in the form of the Caloris impact basin. It is an important finding as it confuses the entire timeline. Not only that, the scientists say the seismic activity generated by the impact would disrupt a region much smaller than the chaotic terrain. In addition, the researchers saw many other chaotic landscapes across the planet, including in the equatorial and polar regions of Mercury, suggesting that this was not a regional geological phenomenon.

Rodriguez and colleagues therefore say that the Caloris impact theory cannot adequately explain the chaotic terrain – so they offer new terrain.

“Here, we present the first detailed morphological examination of these chaotic areas with MESSENGER datasets,” the authors wrote in the study. “Our results support an origin because of the widespread but not catastrophic surface [collapse] of a multi-kilometer thick volatile-rich layer of the upper crust. ”

White outline represents the chaotic terrain, while the yellow square indicates the smaller area that would have been affected by a celestial impact on the other side of Mercury.

White outline represents the chaotic terrain, while the yellow square indicates the smaller area that would have been affected by a celestial impact on the other side of Mercury.
Statue: PSI

So, Billions of years ago, this region started to collapse on its own, in a process that took a very long time. This increases the possibility that “vast amounts of volatiles turned into gas and the top crust of the planet escaped over an area slightly larger than California, about 500,000 square kilometers [193,000 square miles], “Explained Gregory Leonard, a scientist from the University of Arizona and co-author of the new study, in one press release. When these materials came to the surface, they caused cracks and other distortions in the landscape.

Deeper Magma likely provided the heat needed for the process, or perhaps it was fired up “The sun’s brightness increases over time,” the study said.

As noted, this finding points to an abundant and diverse supply of volatiles on ancient Mercury. These are intriguing compounds (including ice creams and organics) exposed to changing environmental conditions, including temperature fluctuations, which the study believes may have promoted stable habitable conditions. Housed in this comfortable niche, simple microbial life could have originated deep underground, far from Mercury’s hard surface.

That said, this capability requires the presence of water between the other volatile compounds, which is blatantly unknown.

“While not all volatiles provide habitability, water ice can do that if the temperature is right,” said PSI scientist and co-author Jeff Kargel in the press release. Some of Mercury’s other volatiles may have contributed to the characteristics of a former [aquatic habitat]. Even if only habitable conditions existed for a short time, remnants of prebiotic chemistry or vestigial life may still exist in the chaotic areas. ‘

In that study, co-author Mark Sykes, also of PSI, said, “If these results are confirmed, these and other similar Mercury collapses could be important considerations for future landing sites to investigate the origin of the planet’s volatile crust. and perhaps even its astrobiological potential. ‘

Wow. Suddenly – from all places – Mercury is a target worth exploring for traces of past habitability and extraterrestrial life. That is a great and unexpected revelation and exciting a bee.

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