Meteors Help Clouds Form in Martian Sky

This May 12, 2016 image provided by NASA shows the planet Mars. (NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team – STScI/AURA, J. Bell – ASU, M. Wolff – Space Science Institute via AP)

(CN) – The question of how clouds form in Mars’ atmosphere may have been answered in a new study released Monday: meteors.

The study, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, discovered that “meteoric smoke” – icy dust created by meteorites impacting on the surface – accumulates in the red planet’s middle atmosphere about 18 miles above the surface.

The astronomers behind the findings said it is a “good reminder that planets and their weather patterns aren’t isolated from the solar systems around them.”

“We’re used to thinking of Earth, Mars and other bodies as these really self-contained planets that determine their own climates,” said Victoria Hartwick, lead author and graduate student at the University of Colorado Boulder. “But climate isn’t independent of the surrounding solar system.”

Hartwick said two to three tons of space debris hurtle to Mars’ surface every day, injecting large amounts of dust as they fall apart in the atmosphere. Using massive computer simulations to emulate the planetary atmosphere, the team discovered the formation of clouds after they added meteors to the simulations.

“Our model couldn’t form clouds at these altitudes before,” Hartwick said. “But now, they’re all there, and they seem to be in all the right places.”

Despite the formation of clouds in the Martian atmosphere, Hartwick said “you shouldn’t expect to see gigantic thunderheads forming above the surface of Mars anytime soon.” She compared the clouds on Mars to “much more like bits of cotton candy” rather than those on Earth that can cover the sky.

“But just because they’re thin and you can’t really see them doesn’t mean they can’t have an effect on the dynamics of the climate,” Hartwick said.

Some of the clouds her team observed in the simulation could cause temperatures at high altitudes to increase or decrease by up to 18 degrees. Study team member Brian Toon said the study could help astronomers determine how the red planet once support liquid water at the surface.

“More and more climate models are finding that the ancient climate of Mars, when rivers were flowing across its surface and life might have originated, was warmed by high altitude clouds,” Toon said. “It is likely that this discovery will become a major part of that idea for warming Mars.”

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