Scientists suspect there's microbial life on Mercury

The smallest and closest planet to the Sun has salt glaciers. Surprise!

Researchers from the Planetary Science Institute claim they have evidence of salt glaciers on Mercury, and beneath those glaciers the conditions might be friendly to primitive forms of life, similar to biological life that exists in extreme locations on Earth. 

Being the smallest planet in the Solar System and closest to our host star, surface temperatures on Mercury can reach 800 degrees Fahrenheit, or over 420 degrees Celsius, during its maximum approach to the Sun at 47 million kilometers (29 million miles).

A new study titled “Mercury’s Hidden Past: Revealing a Volatile-Dominated Layer through Glacier-like Features and Chaotic Terrains,” which is published in the Planetary Science Journal, says that distinct Mercurian glaciers, originating from deeply buried Volatile Rich Layers exposed by asteroid impacts, challenge the conventional notion of Mercury as devoid of volatiles. 

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The research suggests that salt flow likely formed these glaciers, retaining volatiles for over a billion years after their emplacement.

NASA's Mercury probe Messenger revealed earlier that the planet contained volatile compounds — such as sodium, potassium, sulfur and chlorine — which astronomers believe had been stripped away a long time ago due to the proximity of the star and the lack of atmosphere.

The authors compare the findings with specific salt compounds on Earth, which create habitable niches in harsh environments like the arid Atacama Desert in Chile. This prompts consideration of subsurface areas on Mercury potentially more hospitable than its harsh surface, acting as depth-dependent “Goldilocks zones” for life.

The groundbreaking discovery of Mercurian glaciers expands our understanding of environmental parameters for life sustainability, offering insights applicable to the potential habitability of Mercury-like exoplanets, the scientists emphasized in a statement

They focused their work on two areas of Mercury - an impact crater named Raditladi and a region in the north pole called Borealis Chaos.

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The glaciers on Mercury exhibit a complex configuration of hollows, forming widespread sublimation pits. These hollows, absent from surrounding crater floors and walls, contribute to the overall glacier thickness, indicating bulk retention of a volatile-rich composition.

Whether life indeed exists on Mercury is still subject to demonstration, therefore the European and Japanese space agencies will launch the probe BepiColombo in 2025 to gather more data and attempt to solve the mystery.

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