Mercury may be capable of hosting life under its harsh surface, study says

‘These areas could potentially act as depth-dependent Goldilocks zones,’ scientists say

Vishwam Sankaran
Thursday 07 December 2023 04:13 GMT

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Mercury may have salt glaciers under its surface, according to a groundbreaking new study that hints at the possibility of the planet closest to the Sun having habitable conditions for some extreme life forms.

Research on Earth has revealed previously that some salt compounds can create habitable niches even in some of the harshest environments such as the arid Atacama Desert in Chile.

The new study, published recently in the Planetary Science Journal, hints at the possibility of subsurface areas on Mercury that may be much more hospitable than its surface.

Such salt glaciers are of “pivotal importance” as they could be signs of volatile compounds such as water, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen on other worlds, say scientists, including Alexis Rodriguez from Nasa’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

This finding is “groundbreaking” according to scientists as Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun with extremely hot daytime temperatures and yet it has somehow preserved volatile compounds for “over one billion years.”

“Our models strongly affirm that salt flow likely produced these glaciers and that after their emplacement they retained volatiles for over 1 billion years,” study co-author Bryan Travis said.

The Mercurian glaciers were revealed by asteroid impacts which exposed this material below the planet’s surface to scientists studying the planet.

“These areas could potentially act as depth-dependent ‘Goldilocks zones,’ analogous to the region around a star where the existence of liquid water on a planet might enable life as we know it,” Dr Rodriguez said.

“But in this case, the focus is on the right depth below the planet’s surface rather than the right distance from a star,” he added.

The latest discovery also extends our understanding of the environmental parameters that could sustain life, adding a new dimension to the human search for life in other worlds.

Since the Earth also has similar extreme salty regions, researchers have an idea of such kinds of environments and what life forms – if any – could emerge in these zones.

Researchers suspect pits found dotting some of these craters may have been filled with volatile compounds before asteroid impact exposed them to the sun and caused them to sublimate.

However, it remains unclear how these volatile compounds may have found a home on Mercury in the first place.

Scientists suspect they may have likely come from a hot primordial atmosphere early in Mercury’s formation history.

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