Temperature extremes on Mars

Sep 14, 2012 by Jason Major, Universe Today
The slopes of Gale Crater as seen by Curiosity are reminiscent of the American southwest. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

"Mars ain't no kind of place to raise your kids; in fact it's cold as hell" sang Elton John in "Rocket Man", and although the song was released in 1972—four years before the first successful landing on Mars—his weather forecast was spot-on. Even though the fantastic images that are being returned from NASA's Curiosity rover show a rocky, ruddy landscape that could easily be mistaken for an arid region of the American Southwest one must remember three things: this is Mars, we're looking around the inside of an impact crater billions of years old, and it's cold out there.

Mars Exploration Program blogger Jeffrey Marlow writes in his latest "Martian Diaries" post:

Over the first 30 sols, air temperature has ranged from approximately -103 degrees Fahrenheit (-75 Celsius) at night to roughly 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 Celsius) in the afternoon. Two factors conspire to cause such a wide daily range (most day-night fluctuations on Earth are about 10 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit). The is very thin; with fewer molecules in the air to heat up and cool down, there's more solar power to go around during the day, and less atmospheric warmth at night, so the magnitude of temperature shifts is amplified. There is also very little water vapor; water is particularly good at retaining its heat, and the dryness makes the even more pronounced. 

In that way Mars is like an Earthly desert; even after a blisteringly hot day the temperatures can plummet at night, leaving an ill-prepared camper shivering beneath the cold glow of starlight. Except on Mars, where the Sun is only 50% as bright as on Earth and the atmosphere only 1% as dense, the nighttime lows dip to Arctic depths.

Sunset on Mars seen by the MER Spirit from Gusev Crater in 2005 Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

"Deserts on Earth have very extreme temperature ranges," says Laboratory Deputy Project Scientist, Ashwin Vasavada. "So if you take a desert on Earth and put it in a very thin atmosphere 50% farther from the Sun, you'd have something like what we're seeing at Gale Crater."

And although the afternoon temperatures in Gale may climb slightly above freezing that doesn't mean liquid water will be found pooling about in any large amounts. Curiosity's in no danger from flash floods on Mars… not these days, anyway.

With atmospheric pressure just above water's thermodynamic triple point, and temperatures occasionally hovering around the freezing point, it is likely that local niches are seeing above-zero temperatures, and Vasavada acknowledges, "liquid water could exist here over a tiny range of conditions." But don't expect a Culligan water plant in Gale Crater any time soon. "We wouldn't expect for Curiosity to see liquid water, because it would evaporate or re-freeze too quickly," explains Vasavada. "With so little water vapor in the atmosphere, any molecules on the surface would quickly turn to gas."

So when on Mars, drink your coffee quickly. (And pack a blanket.)

"Gale Crater may look like the dusty, basaltic basins of the , but one look at the thermometer will send you running for the winter coat."

– Jeffrey Marlow, Martian Diaries

Read Marlow's full article here.

Explore further: Video: MAVEN set to slide into orbit around Mars

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User comments : 9

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Milou
4.5 / 5 (4) Sep 14, 2012
We get every human senses from mars except sounds. What is it like? Even though desolate, I am sure there are some kind of sounds (from winds, maybe cracking, rumbles???).
hemitite
3 / 5 (2) Sep 14, 2012
For those concerned with their "carbon footprint" it may be a bit ironic that Mars has way to little CO2...
Gawad
5 / 5 (4) Sep 14, 2012
@Milou:

You might get some sound, but not really that much. The atmosphere, at 1% Earth's, is just too thin to carry sound energy very far. If you could stand around without a suit, you'd have to yell to be heard just 6m away.
deatopmg
1.7 / 5 (3) Sep 14, 2012
The temp of the atmosphere has been reported (here) to reach ~0 deg C during the day - what does the temp of the soil peak at?

At 0.01 earth atmosphere the atmosphere on Mars must behave like the "vacuum" in a thermos bottle - allowing the soil, and water?, to remain above freezing for long periods of time.
hemitite
3 / 5 (2) Sep 14, 2012
But on the other hand, you'll get a lot more UV.
baudrunner
1 / 5 (3) Sep 14, 2012
I'd like to know what Mars smells like. I mean, no stinky people, you know?
hemitite
1 / 5 (2) Sep 14, 2012
Stinky Martians?
VendicarD
5 / 5 (1) Sep 15, 2012
Some how I don't think the game show that is "planning" to send people to Mars has considered those temperature extremes.

Maybe they will switch their attention to planning a colony on Venus or Jupiter.
Jeddy_Mctedder
1 / 5 (2) Sep 15, 2012
The only way to terraform mars' atmosphere is by using an energy source. Without question nuclear power is the only viable technology we currently posessto do this.

Its pretty simple you fly to mars in an electric oin thruster craft powered by a mini nuclear reactor.
You get to mars and use the reactor to power a mini mining operation to get more fuel. This energy supplies the first colony which builds an underground city. Eventually you build sufficient resources to produce more reactors. Eventually enough energy can be harvested for use in terraforming.

Alternately there is one other possibility. -------butmore like a gamble. Land on a large asteroid and steer it into mars. After the impact sufficient energy may be released to create a lingering atmosphere. In order to maximize odds of success the asteroid ought to be steered into the largest subsurface co2 ice resovoir. A co2 atmospheric blanket will be the first and most feasible atmosphere on mars. Phototrophs will create o2