Mysterious and puzzling plumes rise from Mars’ surface

Plumes reaching high above the surface of Mars are baffling scientists studying the Red Planet. Already observed twice in the past, the plume-like features are of unknown origin and are currently spurring a lot of curiosity and more than a little speculation.

Plumes rising from the surface of Mars 250-km tall, are baffling scientists (credit: ESA)

Plumes rising from the surface of Mars 250-km tall, are baffling scientists (credit: ESA)

The unusual event of plumes rising from the Mars’ surface had been observed and reported by amateur astronomers in two separate occasions in the past, in March and April 2012. The plumes extended about 250 km above the surface and originated from the same region of the planet. “At about 250 km, the division between the atmosphere and outer space is very thin, so the reported plumes are extremely unexpected” – says Agustin Sanchez-Lavega of the Universidad del País Vasco in Spain, lead author of the paper reporting the results in the journal Nature.

The plume-like features developed over an estimated area of 1000×500 km2 in just less than 10 hours and remained visible for about 10 days, whilst changing appearance and structure as time went by. They went unnoticed by any of the spacecrafts orbiting Mars presumably due to poor illumination and alignment conditions. However, runs through archived images from the Hubble Space Telescope between 1995 and 1999 and from amateur records over the period 2001-2014 revealed that the phenomenon is not entirely new. Similar cloud-features spurring from the Red Planet’s surface had already been observed in a few occasions, but they had never exceeded the 100-km height mark. The only exception was an abnormally high plume recorded by the Hubble Telescope on May 17th, 1997 which was similar in characteristics to those reported in 2012.

Scientists are now trying to determine the nature and cause of these plumes by combining the images taken both by the Hubble Space Telescope and the amateur astronomers. “One idea we’ve discussed is that the features are caused by a reflective cloud of water-ice, carbon dioxide-ice or dust particles, but this would require exceptional deviations from standard atmospheric circulation models to explain cloud formations at such high altitudes” – says Sanchez-Lavega. “Another idea is that they are related to an auroral emission, and indeed auroras have been previously observed at these locations, linked to a known region on the surface where there is a large anomaly in the crustal magnetic field” – adds Antonio Garcia Munoz, a research fellow at ESA’s ESTEC and co-author of the study.

At the moment, scientists are still in the realm of speculation and educated guesses. Hope to gain a better insight into the Martian plumes will possibly rise following the arrival of ESA’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter at the Red Planet, which is scheduled for launch in 2016.

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Carlo Bradac

Carlo Bradac

Dr Carlo Bradac is a Research Fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). He studied physics and engineering at the Polytechnic of Milan (Italy) where he achieved his Bachelor of Science (2004) and Master of Science (2006) in Engineering for Physics and Mathematics. During his employment experience, he worked as Application Engineer and Process Automation & Control Engineer. In 2012 he completed his PhD in Physics at Macquarie University, Sydney (Australia). He worked as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Sydney University and Macquarie University, before moving to UTS upon receiving the Chancellor Postdoctoral Research and DECRA Fellowships.

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