It's Snowing on Mars!

By Eliza Strickland | September 30, 2008 10:02 am

Martian snowfallChalk another discovery up to the Mars Phoenix Lander. Several months after finding water ice beneath the Martian soil, the NASA robot has now turned its gaze upward to the sky, and has observed a light snowfall over the polar region. Scientists said the discovery of snow on Mars was made by an instrument that shined a laser into clouds about two miles above the ground, revealing the presence of ice crystals. “Nothing like this has ever been seen on Mars,” said [scientist] Jim Whiteway [Los Angeles Times].

The ice crystals quickly vaporized as they fell through the atmosphere of Mars, but researchers say they’ll be watching during the next two months to see if the snow ever reaches the ground. Over the past few months, as the Martian winter has moved in, Phoenix has also observed frost, ground fog, and clouds of ice crystals.

In another recent experiment, Phoenix examined the composition of the Martian soil and confirmed the presence of calcium carbonates, common clays found in wet environments on Earth…. [T]he presence of carbonates suggests that water was a dominant force in Mars’s early chemistry [National Geographic News]. However, the Phoenix hasn’t yet succeeded in its search for the complex organic molecules that would indicate that the planet was once habitable for microbes.

The Phoenix’s mission is now winding down. Before the end of October, [engineer Barry] Goldstein said, there won’t be enough power left to keep the lander’s robotic arm operating, so digging into the soil and scraping ice samples from beneath the soil will have to stop. By November, Phoenix will be standing rigidly in the pitch dark, and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will encase it in ice like some otherworldly frozen mummy – at more than 150 degrees below zero Fahrenheit [San Francisco Chronicle]. While the Phoenix has a “Lazarus” program that will send a signal to Earth if its solar panels reactivate after the harsh winter, the lander’s engineers say the chance of a resurrection is extremely slim.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Canadian Space Agency

Related Posts:
Martian Chemical May Put Slight Doubt on Possibility of Life
Mars Phoenix Lander Gets Its First Taste of Martian Ice
Mars Phoenix Lander Wrestles With Sticky Dirt
It’s Official: There Is Ice on Mars
A Healthy Mars Lander Gets to Work

  • Lou

    This is great. We have water on Mars! Great.

    There are two long term issues we need to be explore with regard to mars and one will greatly help up here on earth.

    The first is how do we increase the nitrogen levels on Mars?

    The second is how do we find an organism to lock up carbon and release oxygen so that martian oxgen changing the planet from 95% carbon monoxide to 75% carbon monoxide and 20% oxygen and get 20% captured as it is on earth in rock, plant and animal life.

    It seems the biggest secret is getting carbon and oxygen captured on Mars surface and introduce more nitrogen.

    I dont know about anyone else but I dont want to continue exploring but I also want to use life on earth to terraform Mars knowing that whatever life we have and/or will introduce will take centuries to have an impact on the entire atmosphere.

  • BCL

    What are you talking about? The Martian atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide. It doesn’t need nitrogen for terraforming. The problem is increasing temperature and pressure. This can be done by increasing the amount of carbon dioxide.

  • DWhit

    Of course it needs nitrogen if you ever want a biosphere that is self sustaining. Most plants need a good deal of nitrogen. If you want plants to do the work of growing, making food, and processing gases… then you need nitrogen. On earth most of the nitrogen is in the atmosphere, which is not useable by plants. So the soil and the roots of many plants have bacteria that “fixes” atmospheric nitrogen into a form that the plant can use.


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