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Scientists reveal new thinking on how harsh planetary environs could support life: ‘extends our comprehension’


Scientists have suggested Mercury could support life, but it would require some flexible thinking about the form that any such organism in the exceptionally harsh environment could take. 

“This groundbreaking discovery of Mercurian glaciers extends our comprehension of the environmental parameters that could sustain life, adding a vital dimension to our exploration of astrobiology also relevant to the potential habitability of Mercury-like exoplanets,” Alexis Rodriguez, research lead author and Planetary Science Institute (PSI) scientist, said regarding a recent study

“Our finding complements other recent research showing that Pluto has nitrogen glaciers, implying that the glaciation phenomenon extends from the hottest to the coldest confines within our Solar System,” Rodriguez wrote in a blog post on the results of a recent study. “These locations are of pivotal importance because they identify volatile-rich exposures throughout the vastness of multiple planetary landscapes.” 

Mercury seems one of the least likely planets able to support life in the solar system, with scorching 800-degree Fahrenheit daytime temperatures, a sweltering 290 degrees Fahrenheit at night and no atmosphere to retain it or trap in the elements necessary for life, according to Spanish outlet AS. 

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Solar System model in museum in China

Visitors and parents learn about the composition of the solar system at the Zhejiang Provincial Geological Museum in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China, Aug. 20, 2023.  (CFOTO/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

Scientists have reconsidered the possibility — as remote as it might be — thanks to the discovery of salt glaciers, which resemble their ice-formed cousins on Earth minus the moisture. Previous studies determined that Mercury’s surface contained volatiles, elements such as sulfur, chlorine and potassium, which can help create conditions for life

Initial thought suggested the various mixed layers and materials resulted from a massive asteroid that created the Caloris impact crater, but newer studies instead determined subsequent impacts exposed similar materials and evidence that they might exist independent of the rocky bombardment that plagued the solar system in the earliest eons of existence. 

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“Specific salt compounds on Earth create habitable niches even in some of the harshest environments where they occur, such as the arid Atacama Desert in Chile,” Rodriguez explained. “This line of thinking leads us to ponder the possibility of subsurface areas on Mercury that might be more hospitable than its harsh surface.”

The researchers on the PSI study argued the salt glaciers could have originated from the layers rich in volatiles and sit on top of vast stores of those elements. 

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“These Mercurian glaciers, distinct from Earth’s, originate from deeply buried volatile rich layers (VRLs) exposed by asteroid impacts,” PSI scientist Bryan Travis said of the study. “Our models strongly affirm that salt flow likely produced these glaciers and that after their emplacement they retained volatiles for over 1 billion years.” 

Glacier ice melting

Detail of Ruth Glacier, Glacial moulin, Denali National Park, Alaska. (Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

PSI scientist Deborah Domingue added that the glaciers are marked by complex configurations of hollows that likely formed as a result of retaining a volatile-rich composition. 

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“The proposed solution hypothesizes that clusters of hollows within impact craters may originate from zones of VRL exposures induced by impacts, thereby elucidating a connection that has long baffled planetary scientists,” Domingue said. 



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