A Mars probe spotted something strange during a dust storm

NASA/JPL/Michael Benson via Getty

NASA/JPL/Michael Benson via Getty

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

In a study published Nov. 15 in the journal IcarusIn 2019, the ESA’s Mars Express probe observed two 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 is dry and cold while Earth is dense, wet, and warm — the dust clouds would spiral and move like during extratropical cyclones on Earth.

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



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Similar cloud patterns on Mars and Earth.

ESA

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Similar cloud patterns on Mars and Earth.

ESA

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Similar cloud patterns on Mars and Earth.

ESA

“If you think of a Martian atmosphere on Earth, you could easily think of a dry desert or polar region. It is therefore quite unexpected that by tracking the chaotic movement of dust storms, parallels can be drawn with the processes taking place in the humid, hot and decidedly very un-Mars-like tropical regions of the Earth,” Colin Wilson, ESA’s Mars Express project scientist, said in a statement. Wilson was not directly involved in the investigation.

The storms occurred during spring at the North Pole of Mars, 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 granular texture, reminiscent of those on Earth. This happens when hot air rises due to the denser, cooler air around it.

You can see the same phenomenon occur in cumuliform clouds on Earth that form when it starts to rain. Instead of water droplets, which make up the clouds here, the Martian clouds are made up of dust that the sun heats up and causes it to rise.



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Dust storms at the North Pole of Mars.

ESA

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Dust storms at the North Pole of Mars.

ESA

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Dust storms at the North Pole of Mars.

ESA

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

The researchers note that future studies could build on their findings by comparing cloud formations on Earth with those on Mars and Venus. This could shed even more light on how these dust clouds work on the Red Planet – and beyond.

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Ciera

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