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Md. Scientists Unlock Secrets Of Planet Mercury

HARFORD COUNTY, Md. (WJZ) -- It's way too hot to handle, but scientists in Maryland are unlocking secrets of the planet Mercury. 

Alex DeMetrick reports one of those secrets might just turn out to be very cool.

It took years for the Messenger spacecraft to travel to the heart of the solar system and lock into orbit around the planet Mercury.  It provided the first high-resolution mapping and analysis of the minerals and chemicals that make up a planet that hits 1300 degrees Fahrenheit. That's except in some of the deep craters at Mercury's north and south poles.

"Some of those crater floors have been in shadow for at least a billion years. They act like cold traps.  It's very possible there's isolated water ice inside some of these things.  We're still working to make that definitive," said Dr. Ralph McNutt, Hopkins Applied Physics Lab.

The spacecraft was built at and managed by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Howard County.

Besides the hunt for ice, Mercury's eccentric orbit around the sun will be studied.

"Maybe in the future, a long time in the future, it might help destabilize the orbits of some of the inner planets, like this one, which would be very bad is anyone is left on this particular piece of real estate," said McNutt.

Messenger has found elements that should have burned off long ago and vast lava fields, suggesting a massive collision that tore off Mercury's original crust.

The Messenger will send back information from orbit for one year, although the mission could be extended if needed.

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