A Mars Probe Spotted Something Weird During a Dust Storm

The European Space Agency just spotted some Earth-like clouds more than 53 million miles away from our planet.In a study published on Nov. 15 in the journal Icarus, the ESA’s Mars Express probe observed two 2019 dust storms on the Red Planet that produced cloud patterns eerily reminiscent of those on Earth. Despite the fact

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The European Space Agency just spotted some Earth-like clouds more than 53 million miles away from our planet.

In a study published on Nov. 15 in the journal Icarus, the ESA’s Mars Express probe observed two 2019 dust storms on the Red Planet that produced cloud patterns eerily reminiscent of those on Earth. Despite the fact that the two planets have incredibly different atmospheres—Mars being dry and cold while Earth is dense, wet, and warm—the dust clouds would spiral and move much like those during extratropical cyclones on Earth.

The observation gives researchers more insight into the natural processes of cloud formation, despite the vast differences between the two planets.

Similar cloud patterns on Mars and Earth.

ESA

“When thinking of a Mars-like atmosphere on Earth, one might easily think of a dry desert or polar region. It is quite unexpected then, that through tracking the chaotic movement of dust storms, that parallels can be drawn with the processes that occur in Earth’s moist, hot, and decidedly very un-Mars-like tropical regions,” Colin Wilson, ESA’s Mars Express project scientist, said in a statement. Wilson wasn’t directly involved in the study.

The storms occurred during springtime at the Martian North Pole, which is a period when storms typically form on the Red Planet. As the dust entered the atmosphere, it began to form smaller cloud cells with a grain-like texture—which is reminiscent of those on Earth. This occurs when hot air rises as a result of the denser cooler air surrounding it.

You can see the same phenomenon occur in cumuliform clouds on Earth that form when it’s about to rain. Instead of water droplets, which make up the clouds here, the Martian clouds are made up of dust that’s heated up by the sun and causing it to rise.

Dust storms at the Martian North Pole.

ESA

The insights gleaned from the 2019 storm help inform us how atmospheres operate on different planets, while also helping us understand how dust storms on Mars might affect future astronauts. For example, a massive dust storm followed by its massive cloud patterns could prevent sunlight from hitting crucial solar panels on Martian colonies or rovers. Knowing how these clouds form and how long they last could help prevent those systems from losing power.

The researchers note that future studies could build off of their findings by comparing cloud formations on Earth with those on Mars as well as Venus. This could help shed even more light on how these dust clouds operate on the Red Planet—and beyond.

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