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For Teachers

MESSENGER Water-Ice Data Exploration

NOTE: We are working on new and exciting things for this activity, so check back often!

Despite the fact that Mercury is the closest planet to our Sun, it has long been postulated that water ice could be stable in cold, permanently shadowed regions of the north and south poles. About 20 years ago, Earth-based observations of Mercury revealed bright spots in radar data, which we call "radar-bright regions". When these data were compared with images from the Mariner 10 spacecraft, which flew by Mercury in the mid-1970’s, one could see that the radar-bright deposits were within impact craters. Yet, until the MESSENGER spacecraft began its comprehensive campaign to figure out exactly what these polar deposits might be, the question of their composition remained unanswered. Now it is your turn to mimic the scientific process, in which data from various instruments have helped to answer one of the questions guiding this mission: What are the unusual materials at Mercury’s poles?

Below are several data sets collected over time for Mercury, from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico ("radar-bright" data), Mariner 10 fly-by data, and MESSENGER orbital data. You can print the indidvidual data layers on transparency paper (NOTE: choose "fit to page" when printing!). Once printed, these transparencies can be layered to show how the story of water-ice on Mercury unfolded in small chapters over decades.