Mercury - Mysterious Alien World

11 February, 2013

Share this story:
Follow us: - Astronomers have known about Mercury since at least the time of the Sumerians (3rd millennium BC).

Since NASA's MESSENGER probe went into orbit around Mercury in 2011, astronomers feel like they've been discovering the innermost, mysterious planet all over again.

One finding after another has confirmed the alien character of this speedy little world, which you can see this week with your own eyes.

Ancient volcanic plains in the northern high latitudes of Mercury, revealed by instruments onboard MESSENGER. The 4-billion year-old plains comprise about 6% of Mercury’s surface. Purple colors are low, white areas are high. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/CIW-DTM/GSFC/MIT/Brown University Rendering by James Dickson and Jim Head

During the month of February 2013, Mercury is emerging from the glare of the sun for a beautiful two-week apparition. and we can start to observe its glory just about a half hour after sunset.

Scan the horizon where the sun's glow is strongest and, if the sky is clear, Mercury should pop out of the twilight, a bright pink pinprick of light. Mercury itself is not actually pink, but it is often colored so by the rosy hues of the setting sun.

If you're looking on the evenings of February 8th and 9th, scan the sky around Mercury with binoculars. A second planet is there, too.

Glowing faintly red, Mars is barely a degree from Mercury. In binocular optics, Mercury and Mars form a charming little double-planet.

As February unfolds, Mercury will rise higher in the sunset sky, brightening as it ascends. From February 11th through 21st, the "pink planet" will be visible for as much as an hour after sunset.

February 11th is a date of special interest: a slender crescent Moon will appear straight above Mercury, providing guidance for novice sky watchers.

Mercury circles the sun about three times closer than Earth does, rotating just three times on its axis every two Mercury-years. This slow-spin under the solar inferno bakes Mercury's surface bone-dry and raises its daytime temperature to 425 degrees Celsius, hot enough to melt lead.

This would seem an unlikely place to find deposits of ice, yet that is what the MESSENGER probe recently confirmed: Mercury has enough ice at its poles to encase Washington DC with a layer of frozen water two miles thick.

The newest data from MESSENGER strongly indicate that water ice is the major constituent of Mercury's north polar deposits, that ice is exposed at the surface in the coldest of those deposits.

However, the ice is buried beneath an unusually dark material across most of the deposits, areas where temperatures are a bit too warm for ice to be stable at the surface itself.

An artist's concept of NASA's Messenger probe orbiting Mercury. CREDIT: NASA

Ice on Mercury is possible because the tilt of planet's spin axis is almost zero -- less than one degree -- so there are pockets at the planet's poles that never see sunlight. Shadowed areas at each end of the heavily-cratered planet turn out to be cold enough to freeze and hold water.

MESSENGER found something else: Much of Mercury's ice is coated with a mysterious dark substance. Researchers don't know exactly what it is, but they suspect it is a mix of complex organic compounds delivered to Mercury by the impacts of asteroids and comets.

Pink Planet at Sunset

The planet Mercury is about to make its best apparition of the year for backyard sky watchers. Look west at sunset for a piercing pink planet surrounded by twilight blue.

In some ways, Mercury itself resembles a comet with a long tail. NASA's twin STEREO probes, on a mission to observe the sun, spotted Mercury's tail in 2008. The MESSENGER probe has since flown through it. The tail appears to be made of material blown off Mercury's surface by exposure to solar flares and the solar wind at point-blank range.

The pressure of sunlight pushes the tail in the anti-sunward direction, just like the tail of a comet.

With the sun currently approaching the maximum of its 11-year activity cycle, Mercury is getting hit by the stormiest space weather in years. This is a great time for MESSENGER to study the processes that turn Mercury into a "comet-planet."

See also: 10 Times More Water In "Black Beauty" Than In Other Meteorites!

Red Planet Once Had Hot Water

Follow for the latest news on Facebook and Twitter !

Don't Miss Our Stories! Get Our Daily Email Newsletter

Enter your email address:

Once you have confirmed your email address, you will be subscribed to the newsletter.

Recommend this article:

Profiling Of Faceless "Civilian Cyber-Warriors" - Not An Easy Task!

BitTorrent File-Sharing Is Closely Monitored - Your IP Can Be Registered And Used In Court

Wonderful Mobile Astronomy Apps For All Stargazers!

Our Brain Is A Holographic Machine Existing In A Holographic Universe

Is A New Race Of Super Earthlings Being Born Or Is This The End Of The Human Race? - Scientists Ask

Subscribe To Our Space, Astronomy, Astrophysics, Earth and Xenology News!

Grab the latest RSS feeds right to your reader, desktop or mobile phone.

Subscribe to RSS headline updates from:
Powered by FeedBurner


Copyright © All rights reserved.

Advertise With Us!


 Subscribe in a reader

Join Us On Facebook!

Other Popular Articles


Amazing Star Wars Hoverbike Successfully Tested And It Looks Just Like In "Return of the Jedi"

Closer To Realistic Virtual Worlds - Disney Researchers Reproduce Human Face!

Car That Can Fold Itself Up: HIRIKO Can Squeeze Into Really Tiny Spaces!

Soon We'll Enjoy 3D Films Without Special Glasses And In Real-Time!

Hacking Your Brain And Extracting Sensitive Information Will Soon Be Possible

Silicone-Based Robots Can Walk And Change Their Appearance

Tractor Beam Works On Increasingly Larger Objects - "Star Wars" Mighty Technology Much Closer

NASA's 'Mighty Eagle' Robotic Prototype Lander Takes Flight - It Can Hover And Move Sideways!

A Milestone Towards Future Satellite-Based Quantum Teleportation Achieved But Race Still Continues!

DeepFlight Super Falcon - A New Advanced "Flying" Submersible - The Future Of Manned Ocean Exploration!

Spying On People Inside Building Through The Walls

Biometrics: Eye-Scanners Can Be Fooled

DARPA's Huge "Spider" Satellites In Action 2015!

Dazzling Night Sky Images: Astronomy Photographer Of The Year Competition Is Underway!
All across the world there are people who love to stand outside and photograph the best our beautiful night sky has to offer. Sometimes they can wait for hours just to take that one perfect shot! The results of these peoples' efforts...

Time Travel: A Journey To The Fourth Dimension And The Incredible Science Of Dr. Who
The possibility of time travel have fascinated mankind for ages. We are all familiar with the concept of the time machine, from H.G. Wells to current sci-fi writers, and there are physicists who say we cannot rule out time travel.

Teenage Girl Develops Cell Phone That Tests Your Heart
Catherine Wong is a 17-year-old high school student from New Jersey who she is already making a name for herself in both the science and technology communities. Wong has developed a Bluetooth-enabled device that allows for remote cardiac examination.

No More Zoo Of Broken 3D Printed Objects - A New Software Will Give Them Strength!
Objects created using 3-D printing have a common flaw: They are fragile and often fall apart or lose their shape. "I have an entire zoo of broken 3-D printed objects in my office," said Bedrich Benes, an associate professor of computer graphics at Purdue University.

Become A Rocket Scientist And Space Cargo Pilot With NASA's Free HIAD App!
Have you ever wanted to become a rocket scientist or space cargo pilot? How about mixing space science with a game? Want to try your hand at landing an inflatable spacecraft? All you need is a smart phone, a computer or a tablet.