Old Mercury had the right stuff for life, surprising new research results

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Stylized view of Mercury.

Stylized view of Mercury.
image:: NASA

Mercury, the planet closest to the sun, is one of the last places we think of when we think about the potential for life in the solar system. New research suggests that the interior of the planet once contained the basic ingredients for life. This knowledge could change the way we look at this toasty, tortured planet.

Although Mercury has no atmosphere and a surface that reaches 430 degrees Celsius (806 degrees Fahrenheit) during the day, it may have once housed an habitable underground layer that, according to new information, is filled with the basic building blocks of life research published in Scientific Reports.

This extraordinary claim is supported through Mercury’s “chaotic terrain”, a region with deep valleys, long cracks and sharp mountains. Scientists, first observed by NASA’s Mariner 10 spacecraft in 1974, hypothesized that the chaotic terrain was the result of a gigantic heavenly impact on the other side of the planet and the subsequent flood of quakes. The new research, led by Alexis Rodriguez from the Planetary Science Institute, reveals the many cracks in this prevailing theory and puts forward a completely new hypothesis that suggests that these strange geological features were caused by massive amounts of volatile materials that form the underground of Mercury have escaped long ago.

Volatile substances are compounds such as water, nitrogen and methane, which easily change between states of matter, e.g. B. Liquids that change into gases or solids that convert directly into gases or vapors, a chemical process known as sublimation. For astrobiologists, the mere mention that there may be volatiles on a celestial object will produce a response that resembles a dog that suddenly notices it a squirrel nearby. Volatile substances are prerequisites for life, so the suggestion that Mercury once had an abundant supply of volatile substances and under potentially dynamic conditions raises some interesting questions about Mercury’s old past.

Indeed, it is hard to believe that Mercury could ever have been habitable and even harder to believe that tiny microorganisms could have winding deep beneath the surface, but the new paper questions our ideas about which objects in the solar system were once able to promote life. ONAt the same time it is offers new exploration targets for astrobiologists.

It is not a fancy idea that a heavenly impact on the other side of Mercury could have created the chaotic terrain. Plutos Sputnik Planitia probably educated from such an event. A long time ago, a collision with a large object sent shock waves to Pluto’s opposite side, creating the now iconic heart-shaped feature.

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

The analysis of this data showed that the chaotic terrain formed about 1.8 billion years ago, i.e. 2 billion years after the above-mentioned impact event, the evidence of which can still be seen today in the form of the Caloris impact pool. This is an important finding because the entire timeline is out of balance. In addition, the scientists say that the seismic activity generated by the impact would have disturbed a region that is much smaller than the chaotic terrain. In addition, the researchers discovered many other chaotic landscapes on the planet, including Mercury’s equatorial and polar regions, suggesting that this was not a regional geological phenomenon.

Accordingly, Rodriguez and his colleagues say that the Caloris impact theory cannot adequately explain the chaotic terrain – so they offer a new one.

“Here we present the first detailed morphological study of these chaotic areas using MESSENGER data sets,” the authors wrote in the study. “Our results support an origin due to the widespread but not catastrophic surface [collapse] a volatile layer of the upper crust several kilometers thick. “

The white outline shows the chaotic terrain, while the yellow square shows the smaller area that would be affected by a heavenly impact on the other side of Mercury.
image:: PSI

So, This region began to collapse billions of years ago, which took a long time. This increases the possibility that “enormous amounts of volatile constituents of the crust have been converted to gas and escape from the planet’s upper crust over an area slightly larger than that of California, approximately 500,000 square kilometers [193,000 square miles]”Explained Gregory Leonard, scientist at the University of Arizona and co-author of the new study, in a Press release. When these materials rose to the surface, they caused cracks and other deformations in the landscape.

Magma, located below, is likely to provide the heat needed for the process, or maybe it was fueled by “Increases solar luminosity over time,” says the study.

As already mentioned, this finding indicates an abundant and varied supply of volatile components from ancient Mercury. Interestingly, this Compounds (including water ice and organic matter) would have been According to research, it is exposed to changing environmental conditions, including temperature fluctuations that could have led to stable living conditions. In this comfortable niche, simple microbial life could have arisen deep underground, far from Mercury’s rough surface.

However, this possibility requires the presence of water among the other volatile compounds, which remains a blatantly unknown.

“While not all volatiles ensure habitability, water ice can be at the right temperatures,” said PSI scientist and study co-author Jeff Kargel in the press release. “Some of Mercury’s other volatiles may have contributed to the properties of the former [aquatic habitat]. Even if habitable conditions existed only for a short time, relics of prebiotic chemistry or rudimentary life could still exist in the chaotic areas. ”

According to the co-author of the study, Mark Sykes, also from PSI, “If these results are confirmed, this and other similar areas of the collapse on Mercury could be important considerations for future landing sites to determine the origin of the planet’s volatile crust investigate and maybe even its astrobiological potential. ”

Which, wow. Mercury of all places is suddenly a goal that is worth investigating for traces of past habitability and alien life. It is a big and unexpected revelation and an exciting one one thing.

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