Ancient Mercury had the right stuff tor life, research suggests (planetary histories)

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https://gizmodo.com/ancient-mercury-had-...1842490548

INTRO: Mercury, the closest planet 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 the planet’s interior once contained the basic ingredients for life, a finding that could change the way we view this toasty, tortured planet.

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

This extraordinary claim is supported by Mercury’s “chaotic terrain,” a region featuring 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 gigantic celestial impact on the other side of the planet and the flurry of quakes that followed. The new research, led by Alexis Rodriguez from the Planetary Science Institute, exposes the many cracks in this prevailing theory, while positing an entirely new hypothesis, one which suggests these odd geological features were formed by massive amounts of volatile materials that escaped Mercury’s subsurface long ago.

Volatiles are compounds, such as water, nitrogen, and methane, that easily switch between states of matter, such as liquids flipping over to gases or solids transforming directly into gases or vapors, a chemical process known as sublimation. For astrobiologists, mere mention that volatiles might exist on a celestial object will garner a response resembling a dog who suddenly notices a squirrel nearby. Volatiles are prerequisites for life, so the insinuation that Mercury once held an abundant supply of volatiles, and under potentially dynamic conditions, is raising some intriguing questions about Mercury’s ancient past.

Indeed, it’s hard to believe that Mercury could ever have been habitable and even harder to believe that tiny microorganisms might have squirmed deep below the surface, but the new paper is challenging our notions about which objects in the solar system were once capable of fostering life. At the same time, it’s offering new exploration targets for astrobiologists... (MORE)

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