Martian Mystery

SCIENCE

Amateur astronomers have spotted two clouds rising from the Martian surface, and nobody knows what they are. (Nat Geo News)

Get some possible clues about Mars’ mystery clouds with our lesson on “Environmental Conditions in Our Solar System.”

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers’ Toolkit.

Ah, these are clouds astronomers understand—this gorgeous real-color Martian sunset is the result of ice and dust in Mars' lower atmosphere. Twilight on Mars—the period after sunset when the sky remains dusky and illuminated—can last hours. The long Martian twilight is caused by scattered sunlight and abundant high altitude dust—the same factors that may have contributed to the mysterious high-altitude clouds spotted by astronomers years ago and puzzled about today. Image by NASA/JPL/Texas A&M/Cornell

Ah, these are clouds astronomers understand—this gorgeous real-color Martian sunset is the result of ice and dust in Mars’ lower atmosphere. Twilight on Mars—the period after sunset when the sky remains dusky and illuminated—can last hours. The long Martian twilight is caused by scattered sunlight and abundant high altitude dust—the same factors that may have contributed to the mysterious high-altitude clouds spotted by astronomers years ago and puzzled about today.
Image by NASA/JPL/Texas A&M/Cornell

Discussion Ideas

 

 

  • Could an orbiter or a rover observe the mysterious Martian clouds? Which one would you send to collect data on the phenomenon?
    • Both orbiters and rovers are capable of observing a planet’s atmosphere. They just do it from different perspectives.
      • Orbiters could observe clouds (and the Martian surface) from above—satellite imagery.
      • Landers and rovers would have to “look up” to observe atmospheric clouds from ground-level. The lovely Martian sunset at the top of this image, for instance, was taken with the Spirit rover.

 

  • Wait a minute. So, we already have orbiters and rovers on Mars, and they’re both very capable of observing the atmosphere. Why haven’t they spotted the mysterious clouds?
    • The clouds are only present in isolated places during short periods of time. Scientists would have to be very, very lucky to stumble into an atmospheric phenomenon that cannot be predicted.

 

  • How are the mysterious clouds so different from the hazy, everyday Martian clouds astronomers are used to seeing?
    • The mystery clouds are found much, much higher in the Martian atmosphere. “All of those other clouds, which have been made of dust or ice particles, have never risen more than 60 miles (100 kilometers) above the surface. The mystery clouds, however, reached more than twice as high,” according to Nat Geo News.

 

  • What are the two leading theories about what the clouds are?
    • One theory is that the clouds were created in the same way as the lower-altitude dust and ice clouds.
    • The other major theory is that the clouds are actually very bright auroras.

 

  • Why do astronomers say the high-altitude cloud theory is “difficult to support”?

 

  • Why do astronomers say the aurora theory is problematic?
    • Those auroras, created by the solar wind interacting with the Martian atmosphere, would have to be incredibly bright to be seen all the way from Earth.

 

  • How are astronomers hoping to figure out this mystery?
    • “We just have to keep watching with telescopes on Earth and with spacecraft,” says another astronomer. “And because they’re so numerous, so widely spread around Earth, and so dedicated,” he says, “amateurs will continue to play a fundamental role.”
    • Citizen scientists, keep your eyes on the skies!
Photograph courtesy NASA

Photograph courtesy NASA

TEACHERS’ TOOLKIT

Nat Geo: Bizarre Martian Plumes Discovered by Amateur Astronomers

Nat Geo: Environmental Conditions in Our Solar System

Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers

Nat Geo: Citizen Science Projects

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