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Mars Express unlocks the secrets of curious cloud

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Science & Exploration


When spring arrives in southern Mars, a cloud of water ice emerges close to the 20-kilometre-tall Arsia Mons volcano, quickly stretching out for a lot of tons of of kilometres earlier than fading away in mere hours. An in depth long-term examine now reveals the secrets and techniques of this elongated cloud, utilizing thrilling new observations from the ‘Mars Webcam’ on ESA’s Mars Express.

Mars Categorical has spied this cloud earlier than because it hovers close to the Arsia Mons volcano, simply south of Mars’ equator. Puzzlingly, Arsia Mons is the one low-latitude location on Mars the place clouds are seen – and the one considered one of quite a few related volcanoes within the area to own such a veil of cloud – presently of 12 months.  Mars Categorical has seen this veil develop and fade each day all through the spring and summer time seasons, sending again striking images of this lengthy and dramatic white cloud.

Nevertheless, the cloud is tough to look at in its entirety because of the quick, changeable dynamics of the martian ambiance and the constraints of many spacecraft orbits, limiting our data of how and why it varieties and adjustments over time.

Evolution of the Arsia Mons Elongated Cloud

“To clear these hurdles, we used considered one of Mars Categorical’ secret instruments – the Visual Monitoring Camera, or VMC,” says Jorge Hernández Bernal of the College of the Basque Nation in Bilbao, Spain, lead writer of the brand new findings and a part of a long-term venture finding out the cloud’s dynamics.

Jorge and colleagues’ work demonstrates an thrilling, and unintended, use for the VMC. Additionally nicknamed the Mars Webcam, the VMC has a decision much like that of a normal 2003 pc webcam. It was put in to visually verify that the Beagle 2 lander had efficiently separated from Mars Categorical again in 2003 – after which it was switched off. A number of years later, the digital camera was reactivated and used to assemble photos of Mars for public engagement and outreach activities, however remained unused for scientific analysis.

“Nevertheless, just lately, the VMC was reclassified as a digital camera for science,” provides Jorge. “Though it has a low spatial decision, it has a large subject of view – important to see the massive image at totally different native instances of day – and is great for monitoring a function’s evolution over each a protracted time frame and in small time steps. Because of this, we may examine the entire cloud throughout quite a few life cycles.”

The analysis group mixed the VMC observations with these from two different Mars Categorical devices – OMEGA and HRSC – and from a number of different spacecraft, particularly NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN), Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), and Viking 2 missions, and the Indian Area Analysis Organisation’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). “We had been particularly excited after we dug into Viking 2’s observations from the 1970s,” says Jorge. “We discovered that this large, fascinating cloud had already been partially imaged that way back – and now we’re exploring it intimately.”

Profile of the Arsia Mons Elongated Cloud

The findings revealed that, at its largest, the cloud measures some 1 800 km in size and 150 km throughout. It’s the largest ‘orographic’ cloud ever seen on Mars, which means that it varieties because of wind being compelled upwards by topographic options (reminiscent of mountains or volcanoes) on a planetary floor. On this case, Arsia Mons perturbs the martian ambiance to set off the formation of the cloud; moist air is then pushed up the flanks of the volcano in updrafts, later condensing at larger, and much cooler, altitudes.

The cloud undergoes a speedy every day cycle that repeats each morning for a number of months. It begins rising earlier than dawn on the western slope of Arsia Mons earlier than increasing westwards for 2 and a half hours, rising remarkably quick – at over 600 km/h – at an altitude of 45 km. It then stops increasing, detaches from its preliminary location, and is pulled additional westwards nonetheless by high-altitude winds, earlier than evaporating within the late morning as air temperatures improve with the rising Solar.

“Many Mars orbiters can not start observing this a part of the floor till the afternoon because of the properties of their orbits, so this actually is the primary detailed exploration of this fascinating function – and it’s made attainable by not solely Mars Categorical’ numerous suite of devices, but in addition its orbit,” explains co-author Agustin Sánchez-Lavega, additionally of the College of the Basque Nation and Science Lead for the VMC.

No different local weather system within the Photo voltaic System is regarded as as much like Earth’s because the martian system – however even nonetheless, the 2 planets present distinct and intriguing variations. “Though orographic clouds are generally noticed on Earth, they don’t attain such monumental lengths or present such vivid dynamics,” says Agustin. “Understanding this cloud provides us the thrilling alternative to attempt to replicate the cloud’s formation with fashions – fashions that can enhance our data of climatic techniques on each Mars and Earth.”

In addition to utilizing the VMC in an thrilling means, Jorge, Agustin and colleagues additionally overcame a typical problem when observing transient phenomena on Mars. Excessive-resolution cameras reminiscent of Mars Categorical’ HRSC have slender fields of view, and observations are all the time deliberate prematurely. Because of this, meteorological phenomena – that are usually unpredictable – are normally caught by probability. Nevertheless, as soon as the researchers started to grasp the life cycle and annual patterns of this elongated cloud, they had been capable of direct the HRSC group to the correct place and proper time to seize it because it emerged.

“These findings actually exhibit the strengths of Mars Categorical – its distinctive orbit, longevity, persistent high quality, and talent to adapt because it tackles the mysteries of Mars,” says ESA’s Mars Categorical venture scientist Dmitrij Titov.

“Repurposing the VMC has efficiently enabled us to grasp this transient cloud in a means that wouldn’t have been attainable in any other case. The VMC permits scientists to trace clouds, monitor mud storms, probe cloud and dirt constructions within the martian ambiance, discover adjustments within the planet’s polar ice caps, and extra. Its recommissioning not solely helps Mars Categorical’ main toolkit for Mars exploration, however provides new worth to the long-standing mission, which has been revealing extra concerning the Pink Planet since 2003.”

Notes to editors:

An Extremely Elongated Cloud over Arsia Mons Volcano on Mars: I. Life Cycle” by J. Hernández-Bernal et al is revealed within the Journal of Geophysical Analysis.

The paper can also be out there by way of arXiv

The examine used 63 observations of the Arsia Mons elongated cloud (AMEC) from the VMC alongside different Mars Categorical information from the Excessive Decision Stereo Digital camera (HRSC) and Seen and Infrared Mineralogical Mapping Spectrometer (OMEGA).

Observations from NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN), Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), and Viking 2 missions, and the Indian Area Analysis Organisation’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) had been additionally used within the examine.

Look out for extra footage of AMEC, and different fascinating options of the Pink Planet, on the VMC Flickr page, with images uploaded on a near-daily foundation: https://www.flickr.com/photos/esa_marswebcam/



For extra data, please contact:

Jorge Hernández Bernal
College of the Basque Nation, Bilbao, Spain
Electronic mail: jorge.hernandez@ehu.eus

Agustin Sánchez-Lavega
College of the Basque Nation, Bilbao, Spain
Electronic mail: agustin.sanchez@ehu.eus

Dmitri Titov
ESA Mars Categorical venture scientist
Electronic mail: dmitri.titov@esa.int

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