Space

Martian mystery plume puzzles scientists

The plume was discovered by telescopic observations (Image: W. Jaeschke and D. Parker)
The plume was discovered by telescopic observations (Image: W. Jaeschke and D. Parker)
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The plume was discovered by telescopic observations (Image: W. Jaeschke and D. Parker)
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The plume was discovered by telescopic observations (Image: W. Jaeschke and D. Parker)
Plume seen by the Hubble Space telescope (Image: JPL/NASA/STScI)
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Plume seen by the Hubble Space telescope (Image: JPL/NASA/STScI)
Plume near the Martian South Pole (Image: W. Jaeschke)
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Plume near the Martian South Pole (Image: W. Jaeschke)

Astronomers are scratching their heads over mysterious plumes that have been sighted in the atmosphere of Mars. First seen by amateur astronomers using Earthbound telescopes, the plumes are at an altitude much higher than that of any clouds yet seen on the Red Planet, and may not even be clouds.

Clouds have been seen on Mars since the 1870s and observations sent back by probes like Curiosity and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have greatly increased our understanding of the Martian atmosphere, but that doesn't mean that our neighbor can't still surprise us.

The mysterious plumes were first reported by amateur astronomers in 2012 as they rose to altitudes of 250 km (155 mi) over the the same region of Terra Cimmeria (195 degrees west, 45 degrees south) on two occasions. They were seen on the limb or observed edge of the planet at the day/night terminator during the local Martian sunrise, where the lighting conditions made them stand out much like the illuminated clouds at dawn.

According to the European Space Agency (ESA), similar plumes have been seen before, but never at altitudes above 100 km (62 mi), and this extremely high altitude is significant because it marks the boundary between the Martian atmosphere and space with the plumes extending into the ionosphere and exosphere. The plumes covered an estimated area of 1,000 x 500 km (620 x 310 mi) and took under 10 hours to develop. Though the structure of the plumes changed over time, they didn't last more than 10 days and weren't seen by Mars-based spacecraft because lighting conditions weren't right.

Plume seen by the Hubble Space telescope (Image: JPL/NASA/STScI)
Plume seen by the Hubble Space telescope (Image: JPL/NASA/STScI)

The nature of the plumes has yet to be determined and the extreme altitude raises some interesting possibilities. Clouds on Mars are usually made of water vapor, dry ice, or dust, but to reach the high altitudes observed, the clouds would have to use an atmospheric circulation system different from any understood on Mars. According to ESA scientists, water and carbon dioxide clouds remains below 100 km and dust below 60 km (37 mi).

However, the possibility also exists that the plumes may not be conventional clouds, but a phenomenon similar to Earth's northern lights, though a thousand times brighter. This idea is supported by the fact that the region is home to a large magnetic anomaly, which would support the creation of such auroras.

ESA says Hubble Space Telescope data, along with amateur observations, are being used by astronomers to try to find out the exact cause of the plumes. Already an examination of the backlog of Hubble images has uncovered similar plumes from May 17, 1997. One promising angle will be information sent back by the space agency's ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), which is scheduled to launch next year.

A research report on the plumes was published in Nature.

Source: ESA

14 comments
J Michael Pinc
Wasn't this how H.G. Wells "War of the Worlds" started?
Hayden Smith
Maybe it got hit by an asteroid and sent dust way up into the atmosphere
kingofassholes
(Sarcasm Alert) It's the Man made Global Warming/Global Climate Change.
Edgar Castelo
Bush did it! LOL
Buellrider
It's just arnold's head exploding.
fearnow
There's a metric shite ton we don't know about the conditions subsurface - could the plumes be the result of 'cold volcanoes' in the form of outgassing from the interior of (on a limb here) methane or the like? The strange features of the skylight holes made me think about the opposite of sinkholes but rather blowholes releasing ancient gases bult up underground, releasing as the planet settles. Of course, having seismic sensors on the ground would help with determining that. Or (wait for it) colonists... Yeah I have my cellphone but I still want my jetpack. ;-)
vcr
"a phenomenon similar to Earth's northern lights" - yes - that is what that probably is, that is PLASMA PLUMES - which are connected to the big picture by Electricity - which Astronomers refuse to consider but is the only way to answer all the questions that have been raised from recent discoveries - try checking out PlasmaUniverse.com; ElectricUniverse.com for a totally different approach to Astronomy and physical bodies in the heavens, including the sun. It is all so understandable and no math required ! Scientists these days are so far 'up a gum tree' in each speciality that they have forgotten how to start with the basics, Magnetism has been spouting up as the newest 'discovery' but if you checked out physics basics, you would know there is NO magnetism without Electrical connections, it is seen everywhere you look in the heavens !!!! I must say i enjoy this argument immensely, but it is such a shame that 'experts' are so conceited !
cucotx
It's simply the exhaust plumes from nuclear reactors. Can you say, Terraforming
PG
"The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one"
UncleToad
Were the plumes followed by a kind of green mist? Anyway, I agree with PG above, "The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one" he said. Still - they come. I watched watching the TV news last night, they were talking about a one way mission to Mars. I'd like to volunteer my wife's mother for the first mission :-)