The Red Planet, Mars, has always been a subject of astronomical interest due to its proximity to the Earth. Despite numerous efforts to colonize the planet, it still holds numerous mysteries, one of which is the appearance of a massive water ice cloud.
This cloud, which assumes imposing dimensions in a very short amount of time, has puzzled experts for a long time. The mystery was finally solved recently, and this article will delve into the exciting backgrounds that underlie this spectacle and the Martian mysteries that still need to be deciphered in the future.
In December 2003, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Mars Express probe reached Mars and its primary mission was to map the Martian surface, investigate the atmosphere, and explore the surface material up to 6 feet deep.
The mission was initially planned to last for one Martian year, which is about 23 Earth months. However, due to the groundbreaking findings of the probe, the mission has been extended several times, and it is still ongoing.
Mars Express not only mapped large parts of the planet’s surface but also detected large amounts of water ice, methane traces in the atmosphere, and liquid water under the surface near the South Pole.
One of the most startling discoveries made during the Mars Express mission was the appearance of a massive cloud, which caused a lot of speculation among experts.
As soon as spring breaks in the south of Mars, the cloud appears near the 12-mile-high volcano Arsia Mons and expands rapidly over hundreds of miles before disappearing within a few hours.
The elongated veil structure remained a mystery for years because the changing dynamics of the atmosphere and the constraints of the spacecraft’s orbits made holistic observation impossible.
To find out how and why the cloud forms, a team of experts from the University of the Basque Country in Bilbao used the Mars Express’ visual monitoring camera, Mars Webcam, as part of a detailed long-term study.
The camera was not initially designed for this purpose, but it was reactivated for public relations purposes, and it had a gratifyingly wide field of view, making it ideal for studying the cloud phenomenon.
The team supplemented the observations made by Mars Webcam with information provided by other Mars Express components, Omega, and HRSC, as well as data collected by other spacecraft such as Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Viking 2.
The study revealed that the cloud is nearly 1,250 miles long and about 100 miles wide at its greatest extent and is the largest orographic cloud ever documented on Mars. Orographic refers to the result of wind currents forced upward by topographic features such as volcanoes or mountains.
In this case, Arsia Mons acts as a natural disturbance that influences the local atmosphere and paves the way for the cloud’s formation. The moist air is forced up the sides of the volcano, where it begins to condense in higher, cooler areas.
The researchers found that the structure is subject to a dynamic daily cycle that lasts for several months. Before sunrise in the corresponding region of Mars, the structure begins to grow on the western flank of the volcano, extending westward for two and a half hours.
The cloud then detaches from its original location and is carried even farther west by winds. As soon as the sun rises and air temperatures increase, the cloud begins to evaporate in the late morning.
Despite the solution to the riddle of the giant cloud, other Martian discoveries are still waiting to be deciphered. Recently, researchers are faced with a new mystery, strange layered deposits traced at large craters in the Arabia Terra region.
In terms of their positions, the deposits are similar to polar ice caps on Earth, but their origins remain a mystery.
With the recent advancements in space technology, it is likely that more exciting discoveries about Mars and other planets in our solar system will be made in the near future.
The discovery of the cloud serves as a reminder of the exciting opportunities that lie ahead for the exploration of our neighboring planets and the universe beyond.