Rare high-altitude clouds found on Mars

Aug 28, 2006
Rare high-altitude clouds found on Mars
This true-colour view taken by NASA's Pathfinder rover in August 1997 shows clouds in the Martian eastern sky (30 degrees above the horizon), as imaged before sunrise. Observations of the Martian atmosphere by the SPICAM spectrometer on board ESA's Mars Express spacecraft, have revealed for the first time that carbon dioxide clouds form and exist at very high atmospheric layers, between 80 and 100 kilometres above the Martian surface. This makes them the highest clouds ever observed above any planetary surface. These clouds may be of the same type observed by Pathfinder. Credits: NASA Pathfinder

Planetary scientists have discovered the highest clouds above any planetary surface. They found them above Mars using the SPICAM instrument on board ESA's Mars Express spacecraft. The results are a new piece in the puzzle of how the Martian atmosphere works.

Until now, scientists had been aware only of the clouds that hug the Martian surface and lower reaches of the atmosphere. Thanks to data from the SPICAM Ultraviolet and Infrared Atmospheric Spectrometer onboard Mars Express, a fleeting layer of clouds have been discovered at an altitude between 80 and 100 kilometres. The clouds are most likely composed of carbon dioxide.

SPICAM made the discovery by observing distant stars just before they disappeared behind Mars. By looking at the effects on the starlight as it travelled through the Martian atmosphere, SPICAM built up a picture of the molecules at different altitudes. Each sweep through the atmosphere is called a profile.

The first hints of the new cloud layer came when certain profiles showed that the star dimmed noticeably when it was behind the 90–100 kilometre high atmospheric layer. Although this happened in only one percent of the profiles, by the time the team had collected 600 profiles, they were confident that the effect was real.

"If you wanted to see these clouds from the surface of Mars, you would probably have to wait until after sunset" says Franck Montmessin, a SPICAM scientist with Service d'Aeronomie du CNRS, Verrières-le-Buisson, France, and lead author of the results. This is because the clouds are very faint and can only be seen reflecting sunlight against the darkness of the night sky. In that respect, they look similar to the mesospheric clouds, also known as noctilucent clouds, on Earth. These occur at 80 kilometres altitude above our planet, where the density of the atmosphere is similar to that of Mars’ at 35 kilometres. The newly discovered Martian clouds therefore occur in a much more rarefied atmospheric location.

At 90–100 kilometres above the Martian surface, the temperature is just –193° Celsius. This means that the clouds are unlikely to be made of water. "We observe the clouds in super-cold conditions where the main atmospheric component CO2 (carbon dioxide), cools below its condensation point. From that we infer that they are made of carbon dioxide," says Montmessin.

But how do these clouds form? SPICAM has revealed the answer by finding a previously unknown population of minuscule dust grains above 60 kilometres in the Martian atmosphere. The grains are just one hundred nanometres across (a nanometre is one thousand-millionth of a metre).

They are likely to be the 'nucleation centres' around which crystals of carbon dioxide form to make clouds. They are either microscopic chippings from the rocks on the surface on Mars that have been blown to extreme altitudes by the winds, or they are the debris from meteors that have burnt up in the Martian atmosphere.

The new high-altitude cloud layer has implications for landing on Mars as it suggests the upper layers of Mars' atmosphere can be denser than previously thought. This will be an important piece of information for future missions, when using friction in the outer atmosphere to slow down spacecraft (in a technique called 'aerobraking'), either for landing or going into orbit around the planet.

These results are published online in the Icarus scientific magazine (vol. 183, issue 2, August 2006), in the article titled: "Subvisible CO2 ice clouds detected in the mesosphere of Mars", by F.Montmessin, J.L.Bertaux (Service d'Aeronomie du CNRS, Verrières-le-Buisson, France ), et al.

Source: ESA

Explore further: Cosmic illusion revealed: Gravitational lens magnifies supernova

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Atmosphere models seek clues for rocky exoplanets

Mar 03, 2014

When a distant planet appears as a point of light in a telescope, it's hard to imagine what things are like at the surface. Does rain fall? Is the atmosphere thick, or dissipating into space? How constant ...

NASA observations point to 'dry ice' snowfall on Mars

Sep 12, 2012

(Phys.org)—NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter data have given scientists the clearest evidence yet of carbon-dioxide snowfalls on Mars. This reveals the only known example of carbon-dioxide snow falling ...

Recommended for you

Professional and amateur astronomers join forces

8 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Long before the term "citizen science" was coined, the field of astronomy has benefited from countless men and women who study the sky in their spare time. These amateur astronomers devote hours ...

A star's early chemistry shapes life-friendly atmospheres

Apr 23, 2014

Born in a disc of gas and rubble, planets eventually come together as larger and larger pieces of dust and rock stick together. They may be hundreds of light-years away from us, but astronomers can nevertheless ...

Image: X-raying the cosmos

Apr 22, 2014

When we gaze up at the night sky, we are only seeing part of the story. Unfortunately, some of the most powerful and energetic events in the Universe are invisible to our eyes – and to even the best optical ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Habitable exoplanets are bad news for humanity

Last week, scientists announced the discovery of Kepler-186f, a planet 492 light years away in the Cygnus constellation. Kepler-186f is special because it marks the first planet almost exactly the same size as Earth ...

Professional and amateur astronomers join forces

(Phys.org) —Long before the term "citizen science" was coined, the field of astronomy has benefited from countless men and women who study the sky in their spare time. These amateur astronomers devote hours ...

Kazakh satellite to be launched into orbit

Kazakhstan's first-ever Earth observation satellite is to be fired into orbit next week from the European spaceport in Kourou in French Guiana, launch company Arianespace said.

First-of-its-kind NASA space-weather project

A NASA scientist is launching a one-to-two-year pilot project this summer that takes advantage of U.S. high-voltage power transmission lines to measure a phenomenon that has caused widespread power outages ...

Study links California drought to global warming

While researchers have sometimes connected weather extremes to man-made global warming, usually it is not done in real time. Now a study is asserting a link between climate change and both the intensifying California drought ...