mars clouds_hubblefeature

Amateur Astronomer Photographs Curious Cloud On Mars

The little bump at upper right on the planet is the cloud or plume photographed Monday night March 19, 2012. It's located in the planet's southern hemisphere. Credit: Wayne Jaeschke

An amateur astronomer in West Chester, Penn. took a picture of a curious Martian cloud several nights ago that has the community of Mars observers abuzz. Wayne Jaeschke photographed Mars on the evening of March 19 with a 14-inch telescope and noticed the plume after processing his images.

It struck him as odd the way it stood so high off the planet’s limb, so he shared it with other Mars watchers in the online Mars Group. He also made a cool 5-frame animation of the feature you can view HERE.

Once word got out, confirmation of the cloud came in from other amateur astronomers who had photographed it both before and after the 19th. No one is certain of the cloud’s nature yet, but it could be made of ice crystals or perhaps even dust whirled into the Martian atmosphere. Its altitude is estimated at 60 miles or higher. See more photos HERE.

Mars photographed by Hubble in March 1997. The left image is a full-color view; the right was taken through a blue filter to emphasize the clouds. Most Martian clouds are found in the equatorial and polar regions. Polar clouds are widespread during the Martian fall and winter. Credit: NASA/ESA

Mars is no stranger to clouds, though not the puffy cumulus or heavy rolls of stratus we’re familiar with on the home planet. Mars’ atmosphere is composed mostly of carbon dioxide and extremely thin. You’d have to jump in a spy plane and travel to an altitude of 115,000 feet (21.7 miles) in Earth’s atmosphere to approach the rarity of Martian air.

That doesn’t stop Mars from having clouds. Seasonal carbon dioxide and water ice vaporizing from the Martian polar caps provide the necessary materials to build clouds, and the atmosphere is sown with the dust to seed their formation.

Cirrus clouds are composed of ice crystals like the clouds on Mars. Photo: Bob King

Some clouds are made of water ice, like the familiar afternoon clouds that form around the planet’s high elevation extinct volcanoes like Olympus Mons, while others are composed of dry ice crystals. They’re mostly wispy, much like the ice crystal clouds called cirrus or “mares’ tails”, and they drift across the planet’s pink sky. They’re propelled by winds just like Earth’s clouds.

When Mars experiences strong dust storms, orange clouds of dust billow up above its surface that are easily visible in mid-sized telescopes. Occasionally these clouds can become so widespread that they literally blanket the planet, blocking its surface from view for a time.

The small protrusion extending into the night sky of Mars in this 1997 Hubble photo is probably a high cloud catching sunlight. Credit: NASA/ESA

This wouldn’t be the first time a cloud reached high enough to catch the sunlight and stand out above Mars. Back on May 17, 1997, the Hubble Space Telescope photographed something similar poking beyond the Martian terminator (border between day and night).

In the photo at right, the other white patches along the left side of the planet are additional clouds and hazes.

No one to my knowledge has seen the new cloud visually yet, but observers have been and will be seeking it out in the coming nights. The plume appears to be a very low contrast feature, requiring excellent observing skills, a fair-sized telescope and good optics.

Martian cirrus-type clouds photographed by the Sojourner rover. Credit: NASA

If you’d like to make an attempt, it’s located just south of the dark feature Mare Cimmerium at Martian latitude 44 degrees S, 190 E. I’ll update with new photos in the coming days provided the cloud’s still there. Perhaps NASA will even get a picture of it with the orbiting Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Speaking of which, here’s a recent photo taken by the spacecraft of thin clouds over ice-covered dunes. Should we ever establish a base on the planet in the future, there will definitely be a need for a Martian meteorologist.

Bright, ice-covered dunes and winter ice protected in shallow grooves on the ground are visible through clouds in Mars' southern hemisphere recently. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

18 Responses

  1. Travis Kitch

    Hi Bob,

    It’s really nice that disciplines like astronomy and archaeology receive contributions from the amateur ranks (and by amateur I refer to those not necessarily earning a living from what they do and not a lack of education, ability, or skill).

    Thanks for the Martian update,
    Travis

    1. astrobob

      Travis,
      Agreed. I love it when amateurs make discoveries. There’s usually a lot of time invested, but the results can sometimes break new ground.

  2. Almir Germano

    From ALPO/Japan, nice images from Donald C Parker (http://alpo-j.asahikawa-med.ac.jp/kk12/m120321z.htm). He voices an opinion that it can be an impact cloud, since it is very prominent in blue and red filters, moreover it is very high, 60 mile estimated. Even the orogenic clouds associated with the Tharsis volcanoes can’t be seen this high in amateur telescopes.
    I did some images of Mars myself that night, just 2 h before the finding from Jaeschke, using a Celestron 8″ and only IR filter (for testing purposes, I just had it over the workbench for regreasing…). No clouds on my images, as Jaeschke commented, it was less at this wavelength, so no luck for me, or maybe it was just before an impact?

  3. Sebastien

    Does anyone know if the location of the cloud varies or is it hovering on the same “geographic” place?

  4. Sebastien

    Hi Bob, thanks! Still enjoying your blog!
    Between the two animations, separated from roughly 23hours, the plume went splitted, stayed at the same spot and didn’t change altitude. This should mean it isn’t an impact plume or a normal cloud, isn’t it?

    1. astrobob

      Sebastien,
      It does seem to be higher than ordinary Mars clouds, and there have been suggestions it’s an impact cloud, but I’ve heard nothing one way or another yet as to its exact nature. The most likely explanation is still a high-altitude cloud, maybe something equivalent to our noctilucent clouds on Earth.

    1. astrobob

      Sebastien,
      The plume is south of Mare Cimmerium. I listed latitude and longitude near the end of the blog.

      1. Sebastien

        I’ve been able to understand how you located the plume, and I learned something. Thanks for your hints!
        Now, Mare Cimmerium isn’t known for anything that could explain this plume… I hope to see sharper images from NASA.

  5. Orion Telescopes

    Love your website. The pics are awesome. I’m fascinated by the clouds of Mars. Would love to use a few of the pictures on my website. Will reciprocate with a link back to you site.

  6. GoneToPlaid

    I reckon its time to look at photos of the comet Shoemaker-Levy impact on Jupiter back in the 1990’s and see if there is any correlation in what is seen in those photos to this event on Mars. I agree with Don Parker that this cloud likely is the result of an impact event due to the color, height and persistence. The magnetic fields associated with the Terra Cimmeria region could have played a role in terms of both the longevity of the cloud and its dispersion.

  7. Joe K

    Could it be possible that these (this) plume structure is somehow analogous to the phenomenon seen on earth known as noctilucent clouds; with a significant percentage induced by meteoroids volatile contents?

    1. astrobob

      Joe,
      I think that’s a wonderful hunch. I’ve thought about that too, whether noctilucent clouds might also form on Mars. Who knows? MAVEN should be able to determine the composition of the material should the “clouds” or “aurorae” appear again.

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